Our review of Drumline (Blu-Ray), published February 16th, 2009, is also available.
One band, one sound
Even though we fancy ourselves a completely open and free society, culturally aware and all knowing, there is buried within our burgeoning population several hidden, silent worlds that many of us never experience. Now, we are not talking about Freemasonry or some other secret organization that binds its members to a set of arcane rituals or esoteric lifestyle choices. Nor are we pointing out things as obvious as homosexuality or vegetarianism. No, these covert worlds are ones in which the participants alone recognize and understand the parameters. Only these clandestine clans enjoy the wonders within their private universes; their friends and neighbors merely walk on by, unaware. Like the vastness of the Milky Way, there are many planets revolving within this galaxy. Worlds like competitive high school speech and debate, with over one million student participants nationwide and yet possessing a lower visibility than lacrosse or cricket. Up until the mid '90s, when Kevin Smith and the rest of his obsessive-compulsive geek freak friends championed their collecting skills, the entire comic book connoisseur enclave was enveloped in obtuse and anti-social aspects, seemingly relegated to dateless wonders with permanent parental addresses. And among the urban colleges and universities throughout our nation, show-style marching band has been and is still something of a unique cultural enigma, a distinctly urban mixing of Sousa with rump shaking. Drumline, a surprise hit from 2002, is a window into this mostly unknown musical arena, a society where discipline meets desire, with a little bump and grind thrown in for good measure.
Facts of the Case
Devon Miles is a gifted high school snare drum player. He is personally recruited by Atlanta A&T's Dr. James Lee to play in their renowned college marching band. Like many programs at African American institutes of higher learning, the marching ensemble specializes in show-style, where precision formations and dance like movements are incorporated in the performance, bringing the music magically alive. At first, Devon is all ego, assuming that he will breeze through the try-outs and auditions. And with only minor difficulty, he makes it to the drum line, the premiere ensemble within the mighty company. But this is not the answer to his prayers. In many ways, it's the beginning of all his troubles. Sean, the upper-class leader of the drum line harasses Devon every chance he gets. Dr. Lee requires discipline and obedience, two things Devon lacks as part of his character. And then there are the requirements of college and the program, with rules against violent conduct and mandates that band members read music. Seems that this New York ghetto savant has a lot of learning to do, both interpersonally and book wise.
Still, Devon has allies. His friends Jason, Ernest, and Charles are always around for jokes and partying. He dates a pretty dancer on the squad named Laila, who honestly cares for him. Even a rival program at a campus across town, along with their flamboyant, ruthless coach has their eye on the talented percussionist. But even with all his success, Devon remains stubborn and defiant. Everything comes to a head when he is involved in a brawl during the homecoming game. He is kicked off the team and finds himself an outcast amongst his peers. But through an unlikely ally, he gradually learns to accept his limitations and successfully work with others. And when the changing times, as well as pressure from the administration and alumni compel Dr. Lee to rethink his presentation for the annual BET Marching Band Competition, it's up to Devon, Sean, and the rest of the Drumline to personify their director's personal credo: one band, one sound.
Drumline sets you up to expect a formula ride through the typical underdog sports drama. You know the drill: irrepressible, selfish kid from the wrong side of the tracks, recruited because of his Superman like skills; a new coach, living in the shadow of a past legend, trying to carve out a niche for himself and his way of doing things; a bitter campus president, about ready to buckle under pressure from the alumni without that all important championship to support his positions; a self righteous upperclassman who thinks he knows everything; a tough girl trying to show up the "men" and make the squad; a minority male lost between his world and the one he is attempting to fit in to; a seemingly unobtainable love interest; the big showdown with a rival program; a final face-off with everything on the line; flashes of exceptional physical brilliance; the breaking of rules leading to more obstacles; the final freeze frame of victory/defeat; the inevitable learning of life lessons. Yes, they are all here, like a groan inducing greatest hits collection of staid movie moments. And they make any approach of Drumline potentially problematic. If anyone, or all, of these tired tenets misfire, or if one shouts louder than the others, the movie cannot and will not work. No matter the uniqueness of the setting or difference in the direction, you will be able to predict the outcome, see through the dilemmas and wish you had not bothered to visit this particular movie world.
But that would be a shame. Avoiding a quiet sleeper of a film like this merely deprives you of an exciting movie experience. Drumline is indeed a sly and successful entertainment. It does not banish these formulaic issues to the cinematic compost heap. Far from it. The movie actually uses these clichés, relying on the glorified plot maximums to bring a recognizable structure to the narrative. Like the engine to an automobile, these basic parameters provide the driving force. And then, like outrageous modifications or factory extras, the filmmakers go and reinvent and reinterpret each of the stepping-stones. As a result, they end up circumventing each and every one of them, offering spice, surprise twists, and clever characterization, producing a moving and exhilarating film experience. Yes, you have seen movies like Drumline a dozen (make than a hundred) times before. From Rocky to Bring It On, The Bad New Bears to The Waterboy, the underdog as unpolished champion is indeed a staple of the Hollywood movie machine. And when it's successful, it's an endearing near classic bit of emotional manipulation. But when it fails, everything seems leaden and grossly mundane. So it's a hazardous balancing act that Drumline accomplishes. It needs the formula to function. But it also wants to avoid it like sour notes during a trumpet solo. While it's true the story may seem strangely similar to you, it's guaranteed you've never seen it dressed up in the world of show-style marching band. Nor have you seen it portrayed by characters committed this wholly to their intensely personal craft.
It is through these well-developed characters that we see the truth and heart behind Drumline's story. They turn the seen-it-all-before machinations into grounded realities. Here, every physical attribute is explored and exemplified, every mental battle unveiled. The truth is that, within a competitive world like show-style marching band, where every on field action is an audition for the future success of the program, the desire to battle and to win has to exist. And when portrayed on screen in must appear natural less it seem forced or phony. Newcomer Nick Cannon plays the urban fish out of water Devon as real as you can get. Cocky and incredibly skilled, Cannon does an excellent job of portraying both the heart and headstrong ego of his character in a completely realistic manner. It's that genuine quality that makes his defiant showoff sympathetic, saving Devon from being a complete jerk. Equally unaffected is Leonard Roberts as the prideful, selfish upperclassman Sean. Not merely a nemesis, Sean is the standard leader gone awry, awash in his own personal satisfaction and an unflinching knowledge that he is solely responsible for the drum line's success. His character represents the truth behind the Atlanta A&T Marching Band; like well-disciplined and intensely skilled mercenaries, these musical soldiers boastfully acknowledge that they are willing to make huge personal sacrifices for the cause (but in this case, the cause is applause). Along with winning performances by the rest of the ancillary cast, Drumline makes you believe you are witnessing real young people going through the painful life lessons of growing up, learning restraint and accepting others.
But by far the best, most wonderfully realized spin on the standard mentor as quiet maelstrom character is comedian Orlando Jones' turn as Dr. Lee, the band's leader. Burying all of that well-known gregarious goofiness within a tone of strict professionalism and dedication, Jones shines in a way that is surprising in its depth and power. For those who only know him as a wide-eyed manic dervish swigging 7-Up, the authority and command he shows here will be startling. But he is not simply a drill sergeant gone musical. In Jones' performance is the history of this man, his love of music, and his band. Dignified, excitable, and harsh, he essays the perfect man entrenched, caught between the pressures of his own perfectionism and the alumni friendly demands of the school. Like a Mr. Chips or a John Keating, Jones' Dr. Lee becomes that archetype of the education-based movie—a teacher one wishes they had when they were in school. Frankly, had the whole movie been solely about Dr. Lee and his efforts to keep ethics within the marching band while the rest of the musical community around him resorts to tricks and compromises, it would have been a fascinating, equally compelling story. But as it stands, Jones is simply a complex part of an otherwise carefully constructed story about adversity and personal triumph. As it does with all the other blueprint aspects of this kind of story, Drumline finds new and intriguing ways to reinvent the genre.
For Drumline is more than a movie about winning or losing a band competition, or discovering your own inner strength. Drumline is really about the sanctity of teamwork. Few films of this type focus on the importance of competitive cooperation; they usually stay with the one dissenting voice, the show off that stands out above the rest of the crowd and exemplifies the error of the other's collaborative conduct. Most overcoming underdog movies rely on that power of one, not the mutual actions of many, to make their point. But thanks to the setting and the subject, this does not happen in Drumline. Show-style band, in some ways, is the ultimate team sport. No one person can stand out, like in football or basketball. There is an intricacy and sense of interconnectedness that is missing from baseball or soccer. One member's failure is a failure of the entire squad. Devon and Sean's selfish behavior only hurts the team. It is when they learn that they are part of a whole—that one voice, combined with like minded others, makes a far more powerful sound—that we see how the cliché is converted into a message of hope, of power, and of strength. And Drumline is also a celebration of music and movement, of the pure joy of band. It is a film that will envelope you in this heretofore-unknown world and transport you to a place of artistic and musical excitement. Anyone who has spent time in a rehearsal hall memorizing the fingering to "Stars and Stripes Forever" or the upper counter melody to "The National Anthem" will immediately recognize the truth in the movie. For those who wouldn't know an oboe from an obelisk, there is the incredible musicianship and movement of the bands.
Director Charles Stone III does a fantastic job here. In only his second feature film, he overcomes the burdens of both story and sound, to rise to the occasion to produce a complete crowd pleaser of a film. Stone understands composition and action, and knows when to jump cut and when to hold on the moment. He also employs a unique and effective visual style to provide character insight. One of the best things about the way he frames his actors is the use of an off-center close-up. Several times during the course of the film, a character makes their stand or says their peace while looking slightly off camera. And each time they are filmed on the far left or right third of the screen. To the left or right is an out of focus crowd or backdrop. And this telling presentation underlines the conflicts occurring; either personally, professionally, or ethically. When used with Dr. Jones, it accents the school's desire for a winner, at the cost of his job. When used with Devon or Sean, it emphasizes that there is always something unclear, some unsettling force right behind them ready to catch up and confuse them. In the hands of a Hollywood hack, this device would have grown forced and forgettable. Stone uses his gifts as a scenarist to create a unique, inventive uplifting story. Drumline is more than just the "little guy" film gone up-tempo. It's an incredibly entertaining film experience.
The DVD presentation by 20th Century Fox is brilliant but confusing. There are two versions available (sold separately): anamorphic widescreen and full screen. It's easy to imagine just how awful the full screen version must be. As stated before, Stone uses the entire frame to compose important images that speak to important dynamics occurring between the characters, each other, and their lives. Full screen would absolutely destroy this, as it would the marvelous on field band scenes. Who wants to see the sides and segments of performances cut off for the sake of a more "family friendly" viewing experience? (The widescreen version was reviewed here.) The transfer presented is flawless, sharp and incredibly detailed. Even toward the end, when the screen is mostly darks and shadows, the picture is awesome. This is a superior DVD image, one that showcases the incredibly vibrant color scheme and contrasts brilliantly. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is also top notch. You will hear the band in front, to the side, and behind you during the performance sequences. And even in the quieter, human moments, ambient noises are employed to excellent effect, all to render the aural offering completely immersive. Again, there is no need to opt for a full screen version of the film. Drumline was a movie made to fill its original aspect ratio with energy and dance.
Fox completes the digital package with a wealth of extras. First comes a series of deleted scenes, offered with or without commentary by director Stone. Viewed without the narrative, they seem ancillary to the action within the film proper. But when given the proper context by the filmmaker, they provide interesting asides and depth to the overall story being told. While it's hard to imagine that the film would be better with this material being reinserted into the film, the comments by Stone offer a delightful window into the world of editing, testing and fine tuning of a film. As does his alternative track full-length commentary. Stone has an easy way with words and is more than happy to describe the basic principles involved in set design, location, casting and continuity. He highlights certain visual cues that he used (geometrical compositions, symmetry) and is not afraid to expose age-old Hollywood production tricks (drummer "doubles"). While the detail can cause the narrative to drag on at times, in the end, the commentary does exactly what film fans want it to. It tells the story of the making of this movie. It's too bad the rest of the extras don't do the same. The BET featurette has the look and feel of a made for cable television puff piece, existing merely as a half-hour long trailer/infomercial. And the music videos are rote, junior hip hop without any of the flavor or challenge that the best of today's urban music has to offer. Still, these few less than stellar bonuses cannot damper the enthusiasm or pleasures of Drumline. It's a movie that gladly wears its conventions on its fancy dress uniforms.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is one quibble with the movie Drumline, it can be summed up in two words: More Band. For a film about show style marching and its details, we only get about 20 minutes total of actual band footage. Now, it could be argued that too much would ruin the other vital aspects of the film (Devon's rebirth, Dr. Lee's dilemmas), but, frankly, a few extra minutes of the wonderful on-field choreography and drill line dance moves would have been super. There are several well-known, outstanding examples (Florida A&M, Grambling) that could have been worked into the script. To limit the competition to only two bands, and then to offer very little about what makes them great seems to short shrift the premise. This is a movie, after all, used to showcase show-style band. Just like any unknown quantity that arrives within an entertainment to shake it up and intrigue you, this unique method of marching contains its own drama and its own entertainment. More of it would have been fantastic. Additional scenes at the BET Classic would have been exciting. An example of world-class show style would have cemented the film's specialness. As it stands, what is given merely wets your whistle for Drumline II.
There is an inherent problem with the closed society film. Once the movie is released and becomes some manner of a hit, the arcane ideals and weird ways are exposed. And after a while, after the novelty has worn off and the newness stales, this once secret entity becomes common, and reluctantly accepted. Look at skateboarding or punk rock. At one point these specialized segments of our social order seemed like the most outlandish, out in left field examples of a bored youth culture gone even goofier. But now, just a few years after the media championed these funky fresh fellows as the next big thing, they've become the fez in Grandpa's coat closet. Drumline will probably cause the same deconstruction. For dozens of desperate band "nerds" who envisioned a college career stuck in intermediate orchestra or privately puffing their tuba, the unusual and exciting option of show-style marching must seem like a graduation gift from the gods. They too can be as cool as Devon and his buddies as they challenge the rival percussion gangs from around the country, not with guns or with knives, but with sticks and with skills. Schools who prayed for one bright light to help them recruit the best and the brightest will have their lamentations answered, and then some, as more and more students show up wanting to be part of this illusive clique. And then, when it becomes overrun with everyone and their stepbrother, the luster will dull and the bands will have to return to their standard operating procedure. Then the recruiting numbers will shrink and only those who are truly dedicated will turn out for auditions. Show-style will no longer be "that unknown band thing." It will become…"old hat." Thanks in no small part to Drumline. Fortunately for us filmgoers, as a movie it will always remain fresh and exciting.
Drumline is found not guilty by the court and is free to go. 20th Century Fox is censured by the bench for offering a stupid and unnecessary full screen version of this title.
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