One of those films that leaves you feeling a little bit better about the world, Thunder Soul is the story of the Kashmere Stage Band, its founder, and its members. A Houston high school jazz band, Kashmere achieved local, national and even international fame in the 1970s under the leadership of committed music teacher Conrad ‘Prof’ Johnson.
The film centres on a reunion gig by past band members for their now 90+ and ailing Prof. All speak movingly of how his dedication and refusal to accept anything less than the best inspired and changed them, to the point where several credit him with keeping them out of jail. Meanwhile, some of the band’s more recent fans – their recordings have been widely sampled, and now re-released on CD – discuss how Prof revolutionised the high school band scene by introducing soul and funk, and amping up the performance.
Teachers like Johnson are not unique, but are sadly rare, and don’t always fit well into the system. Though he was responsibility for transforming the fortunes of the impoverished school, ongoing battles with the administrators eventually led to his retirement. He speaks passionately in interviews of the importance of music and arts programmes in schools; anyone who doubts their worth should be obliged to watch this film. Johnson’s legacy is clear to see: not just the music, but in the now fiftysomething students whose lives he transformed.
Every year at Edinburgh there’s one really good film about early adolescence and growing up (actually, this is probably true of most festivals). This year’s is set in a Maori community in 1984, and comes from Taika Waitiki (of Flight of the Conchords/Eagle versus Shark fame) and successfully mixes 80s nostalgia, comedy and family drama.
11 year old Boy is delighted when his father returns home after an extended absence. Supposedly there to reconnect with his kids, he’s really planning to dig up some hidden loot. Boy likes to see his father as a glamorous, fearless rogue, beholden to no man; he’s actually a petty crook and habitual spinner of tall tales.
Waitiki’s performance as the father may be the showiest turn but it’s the likeable group of child actors who stay with you the most, as Boy gradually comes to see his real father, flaws and all. The bittersweet elements are shot through with crowd pleasing visual comedy, culminating in a version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller under the end credits.
Pelican Blood starts Harry Treadaway as Nikko, a birdwatcher with a past of OCD and self harming which culminated in a failed suicide attempt. When his similarly troubled ex-girlfriend Stevie (Emma Booth) re-enters his life, his friends and family soon become concerned for his well being… with good reason.
I liked Pelican Blood while watching it, but seeing Third Star the following day really threw its flaws into sharp relief. We never learn the source of Nikko and Stevie’s self-destructive streak (perhaps there isn’t one) beyond the fact that they met on a suicide website.
Unfortunately, while the banter between Nikko and his fellow birdwatchers feel natural, his scenes with Stevie are artificial in comparison. There’s nothing wrong with shifting tones in a film, but in this case – though you are certainly rooting for a happy ending for Nikko – the film never really comes together as a whole.
Like Pelican Blood, Third Star is about a young man facing his premature death. But this one is not self inflicted: James (Benedict Cumberbatch) has terminal cancer. While he still has time, he undertakes a camping trip to his favourite Welsh beauty spot with his three best mates.
Though the trip starts in a cordial manner, you know the quartet’s various tensions, neuroses and rivalries are guaranteed to come to the surface before the destination is reached. And indeed they do, prompted in part by various setbacks along the way, and partly by James’s desire to make his friends face up to their individual failings and compromises, inspired by his frustration that that they are failing to make the most of the years he has been denied.
Such a set up could easily lead to something unbearably clichéd and mawkish – as indeed it has, in countess TV episodes and films of the hugs and life lessons variety. Thankfully, Vaughan Sivelli’s fine screenplay skilfully avoids every potential trap, even having the character of Miles (JJ Feild) pour scorn on such hollow mawkishness. It’s coupled with four great lead performances – it’s easy to believe these four have really been friends for year – to make an immensely moving film.
The ending may be seen as depressing, but while it’s undeniably very sad, I found James’s defiance in the face of the inevitable also very uplifting. My second favourite film of the Festival.