Thunder Soul you will wonder why. A big-hearted, back-in-the-day tribute — and a stand-alone argument for public-school music programs — Mark Landsman’s bittersweet documentary has designs on your feet, heart and mind.
Celebrating a black Texas high school band that, from 1968 to ’77, vaulted over the color barrier to win nationwide contests, lay down albums and travel to Japan — with financial support from, of all people, Alabama’s governor at the time, George C. Wallace — the film is a riot of impossible Afros and irresistible beats.
Anchored by a 2008 reunion concert in honor of the band’s former teacher, the 92-year-old musical firebrand Conrad O. Johnson Sr. (known to everyone as Prof), a wealth of archival film resurrects a time of civil unrest and racial friction. While the middle-aged alumni, some of whom haven’t touched an instrument in decades, face the daunting task of whipping themselves into performance shape, their spirited interviews bless the day Prof chose a hometown girl and a high school gig over a blossoming musical career. By introducing funky licks, fancy footwork and many of his own compositions to the band’s stodgy set list of jazz standards, this indomitable leader (whose declining health adds a poignant twang to the film’s final scenes) instilled racial pride alongside musical competency.
The power of the tunes remains valuable, but the legacy of an inspirational teacher? Priceless.