There have been plenty of inspirational teen sports films about football (1999's "Varsity Blues
") and cheerleading (2000's "Bring It On
"), but "Drumline" may be the very first centering on marching bands. Directed by Charles Stone III, the film's biggest achievement is in taking a hobby that is widely conceived to be dorky and lame and making it seem hip and fresh. The quick editing and stylish choreography of the marching band training sessions and game performances can only do so much, however, for a movie that is thin on plot and heavy on cliches.
As he graduates high school, the educational future of Devon (Nick Cannon) looks bright. Accepted into Atlanta's prestigious A&T University, more famous for its marching band and dance team than its football, Devon's drumming skills surpass the rest of his freshman colleagues. Because of this, he is believed to be a shoo-in for a spot in the upper-rank band, who get to perform at all of the football games. When it is discovered that Devon does not know how to read the sheet music, instead obtaining the beats by memory, coach Dr. Aaron Lee (Orlando Jones) finds himself facing a moral dilemma. On the one hand, it is a rule that all band members know how to read music, but taking his strongest player off the exclusive drumline may mean losing to their nearby competitor school.
For what is being billed as an inconsequential, comedic teen flick, "Drumline" is an unusually smart one that takes its topic and the characters seriously. The initial pitch for the film must have been a tough sell. After all, how could anyone possibly make a movie about marching bands that wouldn't put audiences into a state of slumber? Somehow, director Charles Stone III has gotten this tricky facet just right, injecting spunk into all of the performance sequences. Instead of relying heavily on rap music, which would have been the obvious thing to do since most of the characters are African American, Stone uses some intriguing and unconventional oldies, including Earth, Wind & Fire.
What is less successful are the appearances of all of the usual sports movie redundancies. There's the impassioned, stern coach who is soft on the inside. There is the would-be suspense of whether the hero will get to play with his teammates. There is the rival teammate (Leonard Roberts) who sets out to ruin the main character's chances of triumphing. There is the beautiful love interest--in this case dance leader Laila (Zoe Saldana)--who encourages her man to be true to himself. And there is the climactic competition between the two feuding schools (any bets on who will come out on top?). The screenplay, credited to Shawn Schepps and Tina Gordon Chism, offers very few novel sparks outside of the unorthodox sport it is about. Even as you admire its eager-to-please vigor and spectacle, you can't help but be put off by its steadfast resorting of every cliche in the book.
The performances are merely adequate, with one exception. In a rare dramatic turn, Orlando Brown (2001's "Evolution
") excels as the marching band's coach, Dr. Aaron Lee. It is a well-written character, and one that could be imagined being played by someone like Denzel Washington. As the stubborn but dedicated Devon, Nick Cannon (2002's "Men in Black II
") does well enough, but is a little too bland for the lead. As girlfriend Laila, Zoe Saldana (2002's "Crossroads
") is memorable with what little screen time she is afforded. While the romantic subplot is underwritten, a reconciliation scene near the end between she and Devon is played just right, subtle yet meaningful in its character-exposing dialogue and without any signs of mawkishness.
The finale set at the BET-sponsored marching band competition, like the rest of the long 119 minutes, drags itself out and overstays its welcome. Stretching such slight material out to nearly two hours is unnecessary and, just when the film should be picking up momentum, weakly sputters its way through the third act. "Drumline" is better than it has any right to be, yet remains an uneven affair not good enough to be worth running out and seeing.
©2002 by Dustin Putman