|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 15 April 2003|
Nick Cannon plays Devon Miles, a Harlem high school student who is so talented on the snare drum that he’s been awarded a full music scholarship to prestigious (and fictional) Atlanta A&T University. Football may be the state religion in Georgia, but we soon learn what Devon goes in more or less knowing – down here, halftime really is game time. People cheer the bands as ferociously as they do their gridiron heroes, and there’s an annual BET Classics competition between schools that earns the winners $50,000 and a year’s worth of bragging rights. For the past four years, A&T has been getting beaten by the flashy band from Morris-Jones University, where showmanship takes precedence over musicianship. Within A&T, the band is like its own nation, presided over by Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), a man whose serious dedication to music and education puts him at odds with the university’s president (J. Anthony Brown), who wants to see more pizzazz on the field. Devon, oblivious to faculty politics, nevertheless knows he’s a crowd-pleaser, but his solo showboating goes against the concept of band unity.
It’s clear which way the movie – and Devon – will go, from his defiance of authority to his conflict with drum major Sean (Leonard Roberts) to his romance with a pretty psych student/cheerleader (Zoe Saldana), but director Charles Stone III and the screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism and Shaun Schepps, from Schepps’ story, make the journey very compelling. Stone knows a thing or three about showmanship himself, with amazing Busby Berkeley overhead shots of the bands playing in moving formation, with choreographic routines that are frequently jaw-dropping in their skill and intricacy. In Chapter 5, we see the band members training like football players – or even military recruits – as they race up and down the stands carrying their heavy instruments, then are made to keep time in a downpour. By the time we see them playing for the crowd on the field, we appreciate the fact that the band members (even the reserves) are athletes and dancers, as well as musicians. They come off as hot and competitive, about as far from the stereotype of band-geekdom as it is possible to be. Cannon does an excellent job of portraying a young man teetering back and forth between self-assurance and self-sabotage, while Jones, known for his comedic roles, does a great straight turn here as an authority figure who really thinks about exactly what it means to have the power that he possesses over the young lives in his charge.
The band arrangements cover everything from classical (“Flight of the Bumblebee”) to jazz standards (“When the Saints Come Marching In”) to contemporary funk (“900 Number”), with plenty of rightful homage to Earth, Wind and Fire thrown in. The 5.1 surround soundtrack is full-bodied and captivating, although there aren’t many discrete effects. One impressive discrete effect, however, opens the film, as a huge blast of drums explodes in the center and mains, rolling away through the rears over the opening title. In Chapter 4, as Dr. Lee addresses his charges, there’s a nice whistle and sound of jogging feet in the left main, reminding us that there are a few things going on at the university besides the band (not that anyone in the band will ever notice). Chapter 12 has a particularly huge wave of sound as the band takes the field, while Chapter 15 has wonderfully precise shoe hits on a hard floor, as Devon’s girlfriend and her sister cheerleaders run through some flamenco-like moves as they demonstrate their new routine. A transition between Chapters 16 and 17 smoothly mixes the nervous clicking of Devon’s pen into the percussive rhythms of the drumline. Chapter 17 has a trombone line so potent that it meets this reviewer’s personal volume test – the cat bolted from the room. Chapter 30 has a crack of doom drum intro that should enthrall percussion fans.
There are lots of good, informative extras on the DVD, including an informative, vital commentary from director Stone, who discusses his shot choices (when he comments on using geometrical shapes in the overhead shots of the bands performing, we instantly see what he means) and points out that, in reality, the Atlanta university bands are all equally proficient at different styles of music. Morris-Brown consented to be depicted as the heavies here, while another school (with band members appearing onscreen as themselves) demanded different uniforms for their scenes so that no one would think they’d really start a half-time brawl. He also comments frequently on difficulties posed by the fact that, although the Georgia locations are authentic, the crew had to work to disguise the fact that shooting took place in the winter. Deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Brown, two-channel sound and non-color-corrected, time-coded images, are appealing and in at least one instance arguably should have been included in the final film (as it stands, there’s a solution to a minor-mystery subplot with practically no build-up). A BET making-of special hosted by Cannon is done well and two music videos – “I Want a Girl Like You” by Joe featuring Jadakiss and “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love)” by JC Chasez – combine super-color-saturated new footage with clips from the film.
“Drumline” succeeds as a good example of the young-man-beats-the-odds genre, as an often fascinating look at a world most of us take for granted and as a new form of slam-bang musical entertainment.