Thunder Soul

Thunder Soul (2010)

Opened: 08/20/2010 Limited

Laemmle's Clar...08/20/2010 - 08/26/20107 days
Culver Plaza T...10/07/2011 - 10/27/201121 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Documentary/Music

Rated: PG for brief language and momentary historical smoking.


THUNDER SOUL tells the true story of Conrad O Johnson and the legendary Kashmere Stage Band.

It was afros and pleated shirts; James Brown and Bootsy Collins. It was the '70s, and an inner-city Houston high school was about to make history. Charismatic band leader, Conrad "Prof" Johnson would turn the school's mediocre jazz band into a legendary funk powerhouse.

Now, 35 years later, his students prepare to pay tribute to the man who changed their lives, the 92-year-old Prof. Some haven't played their horns in decades, still they dust off their instruments determined to retake the stage to show Prof and the world that they've still got it.

About the Film

The True Story of Conrad O. Johnson and The Kashmere Stage Band

In Houston, Texas in the late 1960s, musician and composer Conrad O. Johnson, widely known as "Prof", took a job as Music Director at the predominantly black Kashmere High School where he would go on to transform the school's mediocre jazz band into a full-fledged funk powerhouse. The Kashmere High School Stage Band and their dynamic leader would soon become legendary and world-renowned.

In the early 1970s, national High School Stage Band competitions were fiercely competitive, strictly conservative, and almost entirely white. Not only did Prof break the color barrier and get his kids into these competitions, he flipped the status quo by rearranging all of his band's music into elaborate funk arrangements. He changed the band's look, encouraging them to embrace their own inimitable style. He then introduced the element of showmanship, with each section choreographing slick moves with their instruments--unprecedented at the time. Finally, he unleashed his band on the competition scene, where, against tremendous odds, they would go on to triumph again and again.

From 1968 to 1977, the Kashmere Stage Band won a record number of titles around the nation and was invited to perform in Europe and Japan. Prof and the band made history when they won Most Outstanding Stage Band in the Nation at the highly prestigious All-American High School Stage Band Festival in Mobile, Alabama, in 1972 -- the very same year that state's segregationist Governor George Wallace would announce a run for the presidency.

The band's success reverberated throughout Kashmere High School resulting in unprecedented student achievement in the arts, athletics and all academic disciplines. Prof and the band's accomplishments also helped to uplift and unite the community. As former student Gaila Mitchell put it:

"The Kashmere Stage Band was the best thing that ever happened to our community. Even in a time when there was so much racial bias, everybody in the community came together to help the Kashmere Stage Band do whatever they needed to do."

What is truly extraordinary is that in February 2008, 30 former Stage Band members, now all in their fifties, reunited for the first time in 35 years to play a tribute concert for their former teacher, mentor, and beloved bandleader, Prof, who was 92 years old. They would rehearse in the very same band room where they used to practice as kids. And then they would go on to perform before the current student body at the very school where they made history decades earlier. It was unreal. Some of these men and women hadn't picked up their instruments in 34 years!

What happens next would prove historic.

THUNDER SOUL has been inspiring audiences around the world and is the winner of Audience Awards at South by Southwest, Dallas International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Aspen Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Film Festival; the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at Indie Memphis; and the Heartland Film Festival's Crystal Heart Award.

THUNDER SOUL is endorsed by national arts education champions Americans for the Arts Action Fund, and school districts around the nation. Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Executive Director, Robert Floyd, describes THUNDER SOUL as "a wonderful tool that will help us further convince students, educators, and policy makers of music's life-changing impact."

Director's Statement

Good stories often make themselves known in interesting ways. In the fall of 2006, I happened to turn on NPR's "All Things Considered" to discover some incredible instrumental funk music. The anchor came on to say that the musicians of the bold, brilliant music she'd just played were actually 16 and 17 year old high school kids -- members of the renowned Kashmere High School Stage Band -- recorded in Houston in the early 1970s by their legendary band director, Conrad "Prof" Johnson. And then Prof came on the air to be interviewed.

In terms of pursuing stories for films, I've come to trust that when the hair stands up on my arms, it's a good sign. The more Prof spoke, the more I tangibly felt his vision and passion, the more I knew I wanted to meet him. I looked him up online and called the first Conrad Johnson in Houston I found -- it was one of his sons, and he generously agreed to pass on his father's personal number. I was nervous at that point because I wanted to make this film so badly, that I procrastinated making the call, wanting to make sure I said the right things. One week later I picked up the phone and dialed Prof's home number. "Who is it?!" he demanded to know. "Prof," I said, "it's Mark Landsman, the filmmaker from California..." He interrupted me right there, "Mark Landsman? What took you so long? I've been waiting all week for your call!"

Two weeks later I was on a plane to Houston to sit face to face with Conrad and tell him my thoughts on a film about his life and legacy. He was amenable, though not without his own understandable reservations, but amenable nonetheless, and the project was born.

Originally, I had no idea about a reunion of any kind. I thought I was going to be recreating a historical phenomenon. I soon learned that in honor of Prof's 92d birthday, 30 original members of his band, now all in their mid-fifties, would be reuniting to play a tribute concert in his honor. The concert was set for some time in the early summer of 2008, but for some reason, I felt compelled to ask the organizers to push it to February. I strongly felt it had to happen sooner than later, and that the cameras should get rolling as soon as possible. Reluctantly, the event's organizers obliged and the date of the Kashmere Stage Band Reunion Concert was pushed up to February 1st.

What followed and transpired would form one of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences I've ever had. I know I speak for all involved in this project when I say that we feel deeply honored and privileged to have known Prof, his family, his former students and the Kashmere community. We are thankful for their rich memories and stories; for the chance to have filmed what would prove to be a historic event on many levels. And we are most grateful for the opportunity to participate in the preservation and safeguarding of Conrad O. Johnson's extraordinary legacy.

-- Mark Landsman

Producer's Statement

Someone once said that Prof was all about the timing. This perfect timing followed him throughout his life, and through the making of this documentary honoring him.

In the summer of 2007, Mark Landsman came into our offices armed with his passion and the double disc set Texas Thunder Soul... The moment we heard the first drum beat... we were hooked. Nothing could have stopped us from getting involved in this project.

In the beginning, we weren't thinking in terms of making a documentary film. Prof's 92nd birthday was coming up, and Mark thought it would be amazing to go down and film the family reunion as research for the narrative feature. But when the footage came back... we knew that we had something special.

The first time we watched Prof take his first steps back into Kashmere High School we knew that we were on a journey together. But perhaps even more powerful then seeing Prof on screen, was seeing his students on screen crying, laughing, and reminiscing about how he had essentially raised them as a father.

Craig Baldwin, one of his former students had been planning a reunion concert that was already in the works to happen in May of 2008. We initially tried to push to have the reunion concert happen in January, but when our location fell through at the last minute, we realized that there could be no better place for the Kashmere Stage Band to retake the stage then on their old stomping ground, Kashmere High School. And even better, the concert was now slated to happen in the first week of February, Black History Month.

What happened during the filming of the rehearsals and the concert itself was life changing for all involved. We'd love to take credit for this working out the way that it did... but in truth, if anyone was capable of pulling the strings of fate to make all this happen, it was Prof.

Even though the filmmaking is now complete, our mission to honor Prof's legacy is ongoing. We are committed to doing whatever we can to preserve music and arts education in underprivileged schools across the nation.

Prof said it best: "I think any school administrator who votes for taking music out of the system, [they] ought to be fired. Don't take it out. Leave it there. It can help those kids... even if it's not the most top rated, leave it there, it is an experience [they] will otherwise not get in life."

-- Keith Calder and Jessica Wu