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Movie review: ‘Thunder Soul’

The emotion is high and the music is a joyful sound in “Thunder Soul,” a spirited tribute to the life-changing bond between a great teacher and his students — and to one of the premier funk bands of the 1970s, whose members happened to be high schoolers.

Anyone who believes arts education is dispensable should prepare to be enlightened. Anyone who’s never heard of the Kashmere Stage Band should prepare to be delighted. And everyone should get out their handkerchiefs.

Mark Landsman’s rousing and tender documentary centers on the 2008 reunion concert of 30 alumni of the Houston school band. Organized as a tribute to their beloved music director, Conrad O. Johnson (“Prof”), who was 92 at the time and in frail health, the emotionally charged event takes on even deeper meaning over the course of the film.

Paring back story more than necessary and dispensing with onscreen IDs until the end credits, Landsman focuses on the tie between Prof and his “kids,” now fiftysomethings whose faces light up when they recall their band years. To see them enter the room where they practiced 30-odd years earlier is truly something, and to hear their middle-aged playing segue from ragged to righteous is something else.

With Johnson’s funkadelic arrangements and choreographed moves, the all-black Kashmere lineup rattled the predominantly white school-band competition circuit. Though it sometimes overplays the sentimentality, “Thunder Soul” gets not just the music but also the sense of possibility for this post-civil-rights generation.

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As one alumna notes, “Our parents had fought long and hard, and it was our time to shine.”

calendar@latimes.com


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