The feel-good "Thunder Soul" is one of those examples of a documentary that probably would have been better if it hadn't been made by people who so clearly love their subjects. That would seem counter-intuitive -- director Mark Landsman's portrait of the renowned Kashmere Stage Band is filled with genuine, palpable affection -- but the movie ends up so resolutely one-note that I couldn't help but feel that a deeper, even more poignant film could have been made on the same subject. What's on the screen is plenty fun -- it's a movie filled with '70s funk music, after all -- but you may miss what could have been.
The Kashmere Stage Band is a predominantly African-American high school band from Houston, Texas, that (starting in the late '60s) was under the tutelage of musician and songwriter Conrad O. Johnson. Nicknamed Prof, he probably could have had a musical career in his own right, but instead he got it into his head that he wanted to teach teenagers how to perform in a top-flight funk band with horns, flutes, electric bass, guitars, keyboards and drums. Prof has long since retired, but as "Thunder Soul" opens, a group of his students from the '70s during the band's heyday -- winning national awards and touring the world -- decide to reunite in 2008 to do one big reunion show for their ailing band leader.
"Thunder Soul" bears some similarities to "Young@Heart," a 2007 documentary about a senior-citizen choral group that performs rock covers. Both are warm, cozy looks at how music helps people get through tough times, but they're also both poignant in showing how music's youthful spirit sometimes run counters to the inevitable aging process of those who play it.
With "Thunder Soul," that's most pronounced in the interviews with Prof, who is around 80 during the time period the film documents. Suffering from failing health, he remains a vivacious force despite his fragile frame, and in some archival footage we see that in his prime he was a modest but determined man. Prof is the spiritual center of "Thunder Soul" -- his former pupils occasionally get weepy talking about what he meant to them -- but like much of the film he's not really a three-dimensional figure. He's merely an inspirational device that brings together his old students for one last show. We hear lots of people say glowing things about the man, but you don't get a sense that you ever really know him.
Likewise, "Thunder Soul" interviews several of the '70s students, but beyond some cursory details about what they're up to now, Landsman glosses over the nitty-gritty details of who these people are. It's mentioned that some of the Kashmere students grew up in Houston's notorious Fifth Ward, an impoverished and crime-ridden section of the city, and that playing in the band gave these students something positive in their lives. But the emotional details slide by a little too quickly, sacrificed for a more highlight-reel approach to the '70s achievements of the Kashmere Stage Band. Same goes for a halfhearted stab at connecting the band's emergence with the larger Civil Rights movement: It's paid lip service, but then it's time to get back to the music.
The film's structuring device is the planning of the reunion show, and while it provides an easy way to organize the material, it's not particularly insightful. You hear a little about the significance of the band's music -- Prof composed original tunes for the group to play -- but you don't learn much about the nuts and bolts of putting a stage band together, especially when its members haven't played together for over 30 years. But Landsman isn't interested in really digging deep like that; "Thunder Soul" is a movie where we get to revel in the nostalgia and the good tunes. That's enough, but just barely.