After graduating from Wiley College (of “The Great Debaters” fame) back in the 1930s, Conrad “Prof” Johnson (1915-2008) briefly embarked on a promising career as a jazz musician, joining big band orchestras led by the likes of Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins. However, he decided to come off the road in 1940, right after meeting the love of his life, Birdie.
The couple soon married and decided to settle down in his native Texas, where for the next 37 years, Prof would teach music at Kashmere High in Houston. There, he formed a stage band to compete in tournaments against other schools, and as conductor taught his students how to achieve a professional quality sound on their instruments.
By the late ‘60s, Kashmere had developed an enviable reputation as a world-class powerhouse, courtesy of a funky brand of music dubbed Thunder Soul. But perhaps more important than forging youngsters into a competitive, top-flight band capable of winning national championships was the fact that Prof simultaneously served as a father figure to so many who were being raised without a male role model.
Although he retired in 1978, Conrad Johnson made such a lasting impression on his Kashmere kids that numerous band alumni decided to pay tribute to him 30 years later by reuniting to do a show when they learned their hero was in failing health. That Herculean effort is the subject of Thunder Soul, a reverential bio-pic directed by Mark Landsman.
Produced by fellow Texan Jamie Foxx, the picture features file footage of the group performing in the ‘70s when its members were mostly sporting big afros and wearing bell bottoms pants and platform shoes. That retro reminder is deftly juxtaposed against the same individuals now middle-aged, yet somehow still summoning up the funkified fire of old as they “practice, practice, practice” just to please their former mentor in one glorious, toe-tapping last hurrah.
Mixed in with those preparations are a host of heartfelt reminiscences about how much Prof meant to each of them. And if you aren’t moved by those teary-eyed testimonials, then the floodgates will certainly open on reunion night when their 92 year-old mentor is wheeled up the aisle from a hospital bed to attend the magnificent concert in his honor.
They don’t make ‘em like Prof anymore!
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG for smoking and mild epithets
Running time: 83 minutes
Distributor: Roadside Attractions