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Docs. "Thunder Soul," "The Man Nobody Knew," More

Also: White Wash, Limelight, The Whale and more.

"For a decade starting in the late 60s, the Kashmere Stage Band — a funk-infused outfit rooted in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in northeast Houston — built a reputation as the most formidable high school band in the country." Scott Tobias for NPR: "Under the leadership of Conrad O Johnson Sr, a prodigious musician in his own right (he once played with Count Basie), the band zigged where others zagged, embracing the sounds (and moves) of James Brown and Otis Redding while its peers were mimicking the ossified standards of 40s big bands. In competition — and on recordings — the contrast was clear: The Kashmere Stage Band was lively, exuberant, spontaneous and contemporary, and the also-rans were square nostalgists."

"Three decades after graduation, members reunite to honor their beloved 93-year-old bandleader, teacher and role model," writes Eric Hynes in Time Out New York. "Amid its celebrations of black power, ambitious Afros and fly female trombonists, the film serves as a rousing testament to the singular blessings of music education, since there's nothing inherent or automatic about kids learning how to groove." More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Jesse Cataldo (Slant, 2.5/4) and Jeannette Catsoulis (New York Times). Nigel M Smith interviews Landsman for indieWIRE.

"'Black people don't surf' is a stereotype both investigated and refuted by White Wash, which examines the historical prejudices that have kept African Americans segregated from water sports as well as the contemporary efforts to rebut them." Nick Schager in the Voice: "Narrated by Ben Harper and scored by the Roots, Ted Woods's documentary commences with the big picture, tracing the modern notion of surfing as a pastime of blond-haired, blue-eyed white elites to its origins in slavery and Jim Crow, which — first to prevent escape from captivity, and then to publicly marginalize — kept blacks away from and out of the water." More from Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2.5/4).

"Carl Colby's smart, fact-packed film The Man Nobody Knew operates on many levels, all riveting," writes Andy Webster in the NYT. "Primarily an account of the career of his father, William Colby, director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1973 to 1976, it traces a history ending in 1996, when his body washed ashore eight days after he embarked on a late-afternoon solo canoe outing in Maryland. While reviewing the turbulent period spanning Vietnam and President Richard M Nixon's resignation, we also witness the arc of a marriage, the death of a daughter and the seeming disillusionment of a selfless, if steely-eyed and implacable, civil servant."

"Subtitled In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby (rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?), Carl's doc bypasses the expected first-person detective work associated with such personal explorations," writes David Fear in Time Out New York. "Instead, we get something far more interesting and vital: a tour of queasy, morally questionable intelligence endeavors over the last 50 years from the perspective of the spook community's grand pooh-bah. Abundant where-did-they-find-that? archival clips run us through WWII, the 60s Phoenix Program, Nixon's dirty-tricks regime and more, with testimonies from political and military bigwigs (Donald Rumsfeld, Sen Bob Kerrey, Lt Gen Brent Scowcroft) shedding light on the man by mulling over his contributions to history. The film occasionally skews a little on the PBS-dry side, but in terms of looking back on a legacy of American skullduggery and high-level shenanigans, its access and acknowledgment of our dark past make for one intimate indictment."

More from Kalvin Henely (Slant, 3/4), Aaron Hillis (Voice) and Alison Willmore (AV Club, B-).

"Documentary filmmaker Billy Corben kicked off his career with 2001's Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, a provocative (and risible) Sundance conversation-starter that used real footage to determine the verity of a rape charge at a University Of Florida fraternity," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "From there, Corben firmly established himself as a chronicler — and even champion — of outlaws, from the drug smugglers of Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys II, and Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja to the notorious Miami Hurricanes football teams of the 80s in the 30 for 30 doc 'The U.' His latest effort, Limelight, extends some more sympathy to the devil, which here takes the form of 80s New York nightclub impresario Peter Gatien — who, with the patch over his left eye, even looks the part. As usual, Corben's style is caffeinated and a little rough around the edges, but he's a tenacious journalist, and his yen for sensationalism gives Limelight an irresistible tabloid pop."

"The archival footage is great," notes Seth Colter Walls in the Voice. "It's all skuzzy VHS with wild tracking issues and Betamax clips of the clubs themselves as well as of successive generations of fuddy-duddy local news reporters trying to explain club culture. Then Moby drops by to talk about how the lower Manhattan underground of the time (can you imagine such a thing now?) shaped pop music for the entire country. Given all this interesting raw material, it's mildly disappointing that the filmmakers tie it together with such cheesy connective tissue."

More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Eric Henderson (Slant, 2/4), Keith Uhlich (TONY, 3/5) and Ryan Vlastelica (L).

"When considering the best voiceover artists in cinema history, Ryan Reynolds doesn't immediately come to mind as an especially dynamic one," writes Glenn Heath Jr in Slant. "Known for playing sarcastic charmers and action heroes, Reynolds lacks the soothing tenor of Morgan Freeman or Orson Welles's robust flair for drama. But those traits aren't necessary for director Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit's The Whale, a lovely but problematic documentary on the 2003 appearance of a lone killer whale in Nootka Sound near Vancouver Island. This modern-day fairy tale demands a lighter touch, both a child-like innocence and whimsy that contextualizes the story as a very Canadian experience. Reynolds succeeds on both fronts, narrating The Whale with the right combination of playfulness and tenderness as if he were telling a great bedtime story to his own curious youngster."

More from Brian Miller (Voice), Daniel James Scott (Cinespect) and Alison Willmore (Time Out New York, 3/5).

"Everything documented in Frederick Marx's Journey from Zanskar is fraught with the potential for sensationalist and/or inspirational hokum," writes Andrew Schenker in the Voice. "After all, the film traces the grueling two-week trek across the Himalayas taken by a pair of dedicated monks and a handful of children aged 4–12 in a desperate attempt to keep Tibetan culture alive in an area of northern India where it seems to be threatened…. Although the film might be forced to rely rather heavily on Richard Gere's narration simply to situate the Western viewer, the actor does unify a bumptious collection of material that, taken together, relates what has to be admitted is a remarkable story."

And Andrew Schenker again, now in Slant: "A not insignificant act of oral history, Gabor Kalman's There Was Once… makes for considerably less compelling cinema whenever it turns its focus away from the talking-head testimony of the Holocaust survivors of Kalosca, Hungary, their former gentile neighbors, and their family members, and focuses on the quest for historical recovery initiated by local schoolteacher Gyöngi Magó. Inspired by the knowledge that her hometown was once not only heavily populated by, but its history largely shaped by, its Jewish residents, and that today not a single Semitic resident remains, Magó sets about digging through the archives and tracking down former residents of Kalosca in order to bring their stories to light." More from Michelle Orange (Voice).

Visions of a New China is a series of documentaries running through October 29 at the Asia Society in New York. Cassady Dixon has an overview at Cinespect.

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