|The Kashmere Stage Band
Filmmaker Mark Landsman
was sitting in his office in L.A. listening to NPR when he heard the Kashmere Stage Band
for the first time. Along with many other listeners that day, he assumed the band was a professional funk band from the '70s. That is, until the reporter said they were 15 and 16 year old high school kids
That was all Landsman needed to hear.
He decided then and there that the world needed to know the entire story of the Kashmere Stage Band
from Houston, Texas and their celebrated teacher/composer Conrad 'Prof' Johnson
who was convinced they were good enough to compete in various festivals. The result is Landsman's Thunder Soul
, which screens at International House on Tue., Aug. 10
, spans over 30 years chronicling the beginnings of the band in the '70s to their 2008 reunion show to honor Johnson. The day after the screening Landsman will lead a workshop at Scribe Video Center
titled "From Pitch to Premiere" because obviously the man knows a good story when he hears one.
What were you thinking when you heard the NPR broadcast? What was your next step after hearing it?
Basically [Kashmere Band's] teacher, Prof, was interviewed on that broadcast and he was telling the story of the band, how he broke the color barrier back in the day and how they were the first high school band to actually play funk
. As he was telling the story I thought this would actually make an incredible movie. That same day I looked up every Conrad Johnson
in the Houston phone book and came up with four. I called the first one and it was actually his son. He said 'This is Conrad Johnson Jr., you want Conrad Johnson Sr." So he gave me Prof's phone number. I was so nervous that I had the right number because I wanted to do it so badly but I waited a week to get up the courage to call him
. And then when I called him he was like "What's your problem, man? I've been waiting all week for you to call." So I then I hopped on a plane to Houston and sat with him and we talked about a possibility of making a film about his life.
When you actually sat down with Prof did you know how you wanted the film to look or how you wanted it to be organized?
No. I actually went into this whole thing to talk to Prof about optioning the rights to his story to tell it as a fictional scripted film
. But then when I got there I met all these people, including Craig who is a former member of Kashmere Stage Band, one of the original members. And he said "I don't know if you know this or not but we are going to be planning this reunion." I was like, "Wow, that's better than I could've imagined!
" Basically at that point I went back to Los Angeles and pitched the project to a couple producers here. I mentioned that this reunion was happening and that I wanted to do a documentary and they said 'Go, do it.' We are actually now making a fictional version of the material but the reunion is what really took me initially.
What did it feel like to know you caught this story when you did, in such a pivotal time in Prof's life and the story of the band?
For me that's the power of documentary film. If you do a documentary you have no idea what's going to happen and, basically, your screenwriter is life
. You can't predict it. We could have never predicted that they were going to do this reunion at this particular time and all the kind of profound things that happened over the course of them getting back together and performing. It's stuff you can't script. It's almost too good to script.
For me it was totally affirming as a documentary filmmaker. It's why we do what we do. We capture these moments that are really extraordinary and a lot of it is good fortune, being in the right place at the right time. I would always tell people with this particular project that there's a higher hand here. There are other forces at play.
In terms of unpredictability and being in the right place at the right time. Was there anything really difficult about filming it?
Prof had a heart attack a week before the show
and then there was the question of whether or not he's going to make it. Obviously you will see the movie and find out what happens but Prof was unbelievable. Prof, at 90 years old, was walking around and totally active, this total dynamo
. He was a powerhouse. Up until a week before the show, once he fell ill he, was still playing saxophone every day
. He was still tutoring kids and teaching them how to play music. That's the most amazing thing about this man, the guy taught for like decades, up into his 90s he was still teaching.
There's a moment in the film when the band first gets back together and after 30 years of not playing they don't think they have it in them to play anymore. What was it like watching them as they struggled to get back into it?
It was like watching an amazing underdog story. I love those kinds of films where you don't know if they're going to make it or not and you're totally rooting for them to make it. I had great faith in them because when we turned on our cameras to film the first rehearsal and I heard some of the musicians' caliber I was like 'This is going to be awesome!" I mean even though they were a little rusty I still recognized right away that they would pull together. It was obviously particularly profound because the whole reason they were doing this reunion now is because they wanted to honor Prof while he was still alive. They wanted to let him know in the most profound way that they could, which was through his music, that they loved him and that he meant everything to them
. These people who were kids back in the seventies now in their 50s just totally rallying coming from as far as Portugal back to Houston, Texas
to do this. To me that was just so powerfulif you're going to come halfway around the world to honor your teacher, that's so rare.
I think that says a lot about music education in schools.
That's the whole thing: If people can come away from this movie feeling like music and arts education for kids is special
then we've done what we've set out to do. It was a very key underlying goal for the movie, for people to realize this is just as important as anything else a kid can learn from school how to express themselves through music and art. Prof was really keen on that. Kashmere High School was fairly mediocre high school
. It was not performing so well in any department. But once the band started winning these contests and it happened pretty quickly they really started to dominate. They were so much better than all these other bands. That filled this incredible pride in the school and all these other departments started to rise. Suddenly the football team is winning
and the basketball team is going to state and you've got kids performing better academically than they've seen in years before. It had this incredible ripple effect in the school. It's an essential part of a child's experience, being exposed to music and art.
Since you worked with the band so closely, do you have a favorite Kashmere Band song?
Hmm ... let me open my iTunes. Let's see ... best Kashmere song. I'm gonna...(funk music comes on in background). This is a really hard question. I'm gonna say "Zero Point." It's so fucking awesome.
Thunder Soul, Tue.. August 10, 7 p.m., $5-$10, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-387-5125, ihousephilly.org. From Pitch to Premiere, Wed., August 11 7 p.m., $20, Scribe Video Center, 4212 Chestnut St., 215-222-4201, scribe.org.