Sometimes, it seems all too easy for documentary filmmakers to determine their subjects. Gather one or more underdogs. If they’re already involved in an arena of competition, great – your drama’s already built in. Give everyone a moment to shine and then build to the inevitable climax.
Take 2008’s Young@Heart, for example. An ostensibly irresistible doc about a choir of the elderly covering rock songs, it had novelty and probable heartache in its favor. It sounds cynical, I know, but so far as material goes, it’s the surest thing, which is why I’m all the more dazzled by the genuine, heartfelt feat that Thunder Soul pulls off without feeling equally calculated in its approach to a similar tale of rousing music and ever-passing time.
In the 1970s, Houston, TX’s Kashmere High School was home to an all-black stage band, led by “Prof” Conrad O. Johnson to many a championship. While other (whiter) bands stuck with dusty jazz standards, Johnson went for a funk-infused sound and showmanship that no one else could rival, and before these students knew what happened to them, they were traveling the globe, wowing crowds and recording albums. Cut to 2008, as one Kashmere alum, Craig Baldwin, works tirelessly to reunite members of the band after more than 30 years in order to prove to the now-ailing Prof the impact that he’s had on their lives.
So far as documentary fodder goes, all of the agreeable ingredients are there, but director Mark Landsman doesn’t coast on the built-in feel-good factor. He nimbly balances the genuine nostalgia captured in present-day interviews with the proud expression apparent in concert footage and yearbook photos from the Stage Band’s heyday. Though he was a tough bandleader, Prof improved the self-esteem of his students, and as a collective, they broke through barriers of discrimination and proceeded to bolster community pride both then (in the wake of civil rights) and now (in the face of budget cuts).
Thunder Soul makes a fine case for preserving music education, even before the 92-year-old Prof explicitly pleads on its behalf, while also demonstrating how the Band’s own music was rescued from obscurity, only to find an appreciative audience decades later. By the end of the film, who can blame them? During the climactic concert, there’s a single note held on a saxophone that easily counts among the most purely joyous ninety seconds out of any movie I’ve seen so far this year, a simple and blissful culmination of all the education and appreciation that resulted in both that event and this movie.
It’s moments like those that make the emotional triumph of Thunder Soul feel truly earned. (Well, that and the great soundtrack.)