Aspen Filmfest: Teenage funking in ’70s Texas in ‘Thunder Soul’

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
"Thunder Soul" about a music program at Houston's Kashmere High School in the '70s and '80s, shows Thursday during Aspen Filmfest.

ASPEN – Movie-making is not generally a fast process. Scripts can take forever to write and rewrite – and lining up financing for a project can make script-writing seem like a breeze.The creation of “Thunder Soul,” then, seems like a bolt of lightning. One moment, Mark Landsman, who has spent much of his career making nonfiction projects for TV, didn’t even have the idea for the movie; a few weeks later, his financing was locked up, his story was solidified, and filming had begun.The speedy process is a reflection of the strength of the story told in “Thunder Soul,” which shows at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in Aspen Filmfest. (It also has a screening in Carbondale at 8 p.m. Friday.) Landsman, for one, recognized in an instant just how powerful the tale could be.One day, in late fall of 2006, Landsman, a Chicago native, a Los Angeles resident and a music fanatic, was listening to NPR. The radio station was a frequent source of inspiration; Landsman identifies himself as “an NPR junkie.” But this broadcast hit him particularly hard.”I heard this great wall of funk music coming over my radio. I figured, Oh, this must be James Brown’s band – that seemed the only possibility,” Landsman recalled. “And the reporter said, You’re not going to believe this, but that was a group of teenage musicians, recorded in the 1970s. That was mind-blowing to me, that a group of kids could sound that way.”The music was followed by an interview with the person ultimately responsible for the sound: Conrad “Prof” Johnson. A music teacher at Houston’s Kashmere High School in the ’70s and ’80s, Johnson explained how he had taken an underfunded music program, specializing in staid jazz-lite, and transformed it into a funk machine.”That’s all it took for me. I was incredibly inspired,” Landsman said.Two weeks later he flew to assess Johnson in person. It might have been even sooner, but after going through the Houston phone book, contacting Johnson’s son, and explaining his intentions, Landsman waited a full week to contact the elder Johnson. “I was so freaked out, I waited a week to build up the courage,” he said. “He said, ‘What’s wrong with you, Mark Landsman? I’ve been waiting all week to hear from you.'”Landsman spent three days with Johnson and also met with former students in the Kashmere Stage Band, who told him that a series of reunion concerts was scheduled a few months in the future. That was enough for his investors. When Landsman returned just a few weeks later to begin filming, he had financing in place.The trick for Landsman was to handle this compelling story in the fashion it deserved. “I recognized we had a beautiful story – just the fact that 35 people are coming for a band reunion, that itself is gold,” Landsman, who will be present for Q&A sessions at the Filmfest screenings, said. “But when I met these guys and got their memories, and how much it meant to them, and how big an influence Prof had been, you realize there’s a lot of work at hand. You have to be reverential about what is presented to you.”Landsman seems to have hit his mark. “Thunder Soul” premiered at the South by Southwest Film Conference in Austin, and earned an audience award. It has followed with awards at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Hot Docs festival in Toronto and the Heartland Film Festival in Indiana, where it took the Crystal Heart for a work that celebrates the human spirit.The spirit is strong in Johnson, who came to Kashmere High School, in Houston’s predominantly black Kashmere Gardens neighborhood, in the ’50s. By the early ’70s, sensing that the stage band – school bands that played stiff arrangements of jazz and pop tunes – was anachronistic, he steered the Kashmere Stage Band toward cutting-edge funk. The historic footage Landsman uses is striking: On the one hand are standard stage bands, moderately engaged, at best, in playing music to please their parents. The Kashmere Dance Band, by contrast, is entirely of its time. The group plays big band funk inspired by, and closely connected to, James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone and Bill Withers. Dance moves are incorporated into the show. Membership in the band is an honor and a pleasure, and the students are motivated to become monster musicians, and an extraordinary ensemble.The movie emphasizes the joy of the experience. Vintage footage reveals the spectacle of the music-making; in contemporary interviews, the former students speak about how meaningful it was. As the musicians assemble for the reunion concerts, it becomes clear that the students learned a skill that is with them for life.Underneath, though, is a commentary on education. It is understood that the Kashmere Stage Band is the exception, that not every school gets a Prof Johnson.”He said, ‘I’m taking this job under one condition – that you let me treat these kids as professionals, and I will expect nothing less. Train them like professionals, rehearse them like professionals, discipline them like professionals.’ And he did all of that,” Landsman said. “It’s a testament to what the kids are capable of, if you give them the resources. It’s just giving them that commitment.”But you really need a Prof-like figure to have that kind of vitality. And you need stars lining up – the support of the community, the school district – to do things that were innovative at the time.”The students weren’t the only ones who had their lives affected by Johnson and the Kashmere Dance Band. Landsman is in the process of a career move, into narrative features. He is currently working on a fictional version of the “Thunder Soul”