By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 21, 2010 at 8:15AM
Film Festival rule number one: ask people what they like, and when two in a row say the same film, get thee to the next screening.
I was visiting Austin's Heritage Boot store on 8th Street with my brother Michael, and the guy in the store was raving about this doc about the Kashmere High School Stage Band. Then we ran into screenwriter Josh Olson (A History of Violence) on line for another flick and he raved about the same movie, Thunder Soul, about how one teacher turned a school band into a tight grooving funk award-winner, years in a row. And the reconstituted band was going to perform at the Austin Chronicle party that night. Sold.
Director Mark Landsman was listening to NPR in his car when he heard a story about how the legendary 70s Kashmere h.s. band was reforming to honor their teacher, "Prof" Conrad Johnson. Landsman pulled over to hear the end of the report, and then high-tailed himself to Houston to nab the film rights. He googled "Conrad Johnson" and reached first the son, then the father. It was a good thing he hastened, because others came right behind him. He was planning to research a fiction movie, but as he shot the unfolding story, it turned out so well that the documentary resulted.
You couldn't ask for more dramatic and entertaining material. Landsman edits between period clips of benevolently demanding father-figure Prof and the band in its prime--unexpectedly beating all the white bands in competition--and contemporary footage of the 90ish prof, who was kicked to the curb by misguided school officials, and the grateful 50ish students whose lives he changed. They came back to Houston to practice for a benefit concert: four weeks rehearsal after 30 years. One thug credits Prof with saving his life. "Conrad Johnson taught us not just music but how to be men," said one band member. The women in the band thanked Prof for demanding as much of them as the men. "He made us play better," said the flautist. "You better have it down."
Many went on to become musicians and band leaders. The bass player had been playing music in Europe but moved back to Houston because of the movie. Many turned up for the screening and the stage show: they can still lay down some grooves.
Assuming the movie lands a distrib (the band will continue to play gigs via Prof's Music and Fine Arts Foundation), I wouldn't be surprised if this movie wound up in the Oscar race. It has the right elements to appeal to warm-hearted Academy voters.
The doc narrative is so emotionally compelling that Olson and several other producers are already hovering over the movie rights.