Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 12, 2002
Drumline\r\nStarring Nick Cannon, ZoŽ Saldana, and Orlando Jones. Directed by Charles Stone III. Written by Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps. Rated PG-13.
I Got Rhythm

Band aficionadosof the world rejoice,for Drumline is your movie.


Drumline is the type of film that probably would have fared better with both critics and ticket-buyers if it had come out in the dog days of August. Itís small-scaled, with no recognizable stars. It comes from a major Hollywood studio, so it has no indie cachet. Itís about a marching band, for crying out loud. Itís a prime candidate to get lost in the holiday rush. Still, when you get tired of the prestigious, meaningful pictures that will be flooding the market in coming weeks, you might want to remember this little movie, because itís more entertaining, more inspiring, and better made than half the Oscar contenders.

It begins with Devon Miles (Nick Cannon), a high school drummer from New York City recruited by the fictitious Atlanta A&T University to join its band, an ensemble so famous that it has reduced the schoolís football team to a mere afterthought. Devon is jaw-droppingly talented on his instrument: His instructor plays a complicated new cadence and gives his students a week to learn it, but Devon doesnít wait and instead raps it out perfectly on the spot. Auditioning for a place on the bandís drum line, he not only nails his audition piece without once looking at the music, but he adds on his own cadenza at the end. He knows exactly how good he is, and thatís part of the problem. His attitude incurs the wrath of his section leader (Leonard Roberts), an upperclassman who decides to break the cocky little freshman, only to find that the kid doesnít break so easily. Devon even butts heads with Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), the band director who recruited him.

What sets this movie apart is the way it takes us into an entire subculture that most of us know little about. (Blue Crush did the same thing earlier this year for female surfers.) ďShow-styleĒ marching bands at African-American colleges are much more energetic and flamboyant than their counterparts at NCAA football and basketball games. Through Devonís eyes, we see what goes into a successful band: the boot-camp-like training period, the jargon, the competitiveness among band members who play the same instrument, the politicking between the band director and the university officials, the creativity needed for the bandís choreography and the drum lineís stick work, the intricacies of coordinating basses, snares, brasses, woodwinds, steppers, and drum majors. How do you disrespect a drummer on a rival band? You walk up to him during a performance and play on his drum instead of your own.

Screenwriters Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps, two female writers who have a pretty good handle on this male-dominated world, touch on the cultural disjoint that Devon feels in moving from the streets of Harlem to the Deep South, a subject that mainstream movies havenít dealt with in much detail. Director Charles Stone III (whose previous work includes tv commercials and the dreary gangsta drama Paid in Full) shows proper respect for these musicians and the skill and showmanship they display. He knows how to make the bass drums boom, and he has an eye for both the inhuman unison of the snare drummersí stickwork and the provocative movements of the steppers. For people who havenít had much exposure to this world, the total immersion this movie offers is enlightening.

Nick Cannon, who had his own tv show on Nickelodeon, makes his film debut here, and heís a considerable find. He has a whiz kidís self-assurance and a bit of a snarl, so you realize why Devon rubs people the wrong way. He also has an engaging smile and enough youthful charm that you understand why Devon wins over loyal friends and attracts a girlfriend (ZoŽ Saldana) from a proper Southern family. Less successful is the attempt by Jones, best known as a clown on Mad TV and for several forgettable movies (The Time Machine, Double Take, The Replacements), to straighten up and play an authority figure. He doesnít pull it off, but itís interesting to watch him try.

Of course, the story goes just as you might predict. Dr. Lee teaches Devon the value of discipline and teamwork, while Devon teaches the Earth Wind & Fire-loving band master to get down with the hip-hop. Thereís even a band equivalent of a big-game climax, as Atlanta A&T squares off with an arch-rival school at a national competition. This movie is utterly generic ó if it were about a football player instead of a drummer, itíd be completely uninteresting ó and we critics tend to value films that break generic conventions. However, Drumline (much like Blue Crush and others before it) proves that originality can be in a movieís subject matter as much as in its style or story. There is honor in genre filmmaking if itís done with the intelligence and honesty of this film.

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