One of the reasons I go to documentaries in the first place is to meet characters I would otherwise never meet, and to travel to places I would otherwise never go, and to learn stories that might otherwise be marginalized by history. More than with narrative films, I like walking into documentaries knowing nothing, because that journey of discovery can be part of the experience.
I'm casually friendly with Keith Calder, one of the producers of this film, but for the last two years, any time he mentioned the film, I tuned it out. It's hard when you're friendly with people, because if you don't like something of theirs, some of them take it very personally. In Keith's case, I have yet to really respond to something he's been attached to. "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane" is okay, but not overwhelmingly successful, and "The Wackness" left me fairly cold. I like the attempt of "Battle For Terra" more than the execution. And so walking into "Thunder Soul," I was prepared to have to have that conversation again.
Instead, I owe Keith Calder a hug for bringing the story of the Kashmere Stage Band to the screen, because this is one of the most joyous experiences I've had in the theater so far this year. I have never heard of the Kashmere Stage Band before. I love funk music, though, so the soundtrack to this film is half the reason I am head over heels. Who is the Kashmere Stage Band? In the '70s, they were the school band for Kashmere High School, and they were award-winners, world-travelers, and one of the single best funk units working in the world. They accomplished this under the supervisory eye of Conrad "Prof" Johnson, and the film deals with two eras in Johnson's life.
If the entire film were just a look back, that would be enough. The way Johnson built his Stage Band, the way he broke through by composing original funk arrangements for them, the relationships he built with the students and the relationships they built with each other, the afterlife of the recordings from those glory days... that's plenty of story for any film. And director Mark Landsman does an incredible job of making you understand who the Kashmere Stage Band was, who Conrad "Prof" Johnson was, and how the story played out. But where the film makes the jump from very good to great is when the kids of the original era of the Stage Band decide to play together again so they can pay tribute to "Prof," and so he can see just how much of what taught them was retained. This is where Landsman really nails it as a filmmaker, expertly charting the emotional ride, never tipping his hand too much or reaching for cheap sentiment. He knows just how much power there is to this story, and he's smart enough to get out of the way of the people in the film. He doesn't have to ladle on the emotion, because the film builds a natural power out of the events that is more than devastating anyway.
"Prof" is an impressive presence in the film, even old and infirm, and the effect his instruction had on his students and the ripple effect that their success set off within Kashmere High School is an overt lesson in how self-esteem can be infectious. I would recommend this to any educator out there first, but then beyond that, I think it is simply the sort of story that speaks to the best parts of who were are as people. It's great to see people do something really well, and then to see a whole group of people do that thing well together, and to see the way they rally around this one incredible personality... it's the very definition of a "feel-good" movie.
And did I mention the soundtrack? Good god, y'all. Jump back, make me wanna kiss myself. The Kashmere Stage Band was recorded extensively, both live and in the studio, and the film uses all of it to show the power of what these kids and "Prof" all built together. The film has made me go from having no idea who they are or were to being a believer in the power of the Kashmere Stage Band. There are two more screenings of this here at SXSW, and then my belief is we're going to be hearing this title a lot over the next year, and if it turns out to be one of next year's Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, it would make perfect sense. This is exactly the sort of story that a non-fiction film can tell in a way that no fiction film can match, and it's the charge of knowing that you're seeing the truth that really pushes it over. I spent the last 20 minutes with a smile on my face and tears on my cheeks, and I suspect audiences will fall in love with the film as soon as some wise distributor steps up and announces the shocking idea that they actually like to earn money. There's gold in "Thunder Soul," and it's the highlight of my fest so far.
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