Beat It

Finally, a film that tackles the prickly topic about the rigors of the marching band

Of all the movies you could be spending your December with -- and there are many good choices, from Oscar-bait to better-than-expected sequels like The Santa Clause 2 -- why would you want to end up at Drumline?

"Hey dear, wanna go see the new Scorsese flick, or maybe one of those Julianne Moore movies you like so much?"

"Naah, I'd much rather see some film with no-name teen actors about college kids who walk around with drums. It's directed by the guy who did those 'Whaaasssup?' beer commercials, and those were neato."



It's either an extremely canny bit of counterprogramming or a tremendously heinous mistake that Fox is this week releasing this movie about ... marching band.

Yes, that peculiar torment dreamed up by educational institutions in order to coerce the musically gifted into wearing really gay outfits and playing second fiddle to the football team finally gets its own triumphant underdog college flick. If you are now, or ever were in marching band, the film's a must-see: Fox invited several classes' worth of band students to the press screening, and the cheers they offered up were louder than anything heard at a recent sneak preview of The Two Towers. If you're anyone else, however, bear in mind that this is a movie whose climax features the kind of college football half-time antics you might normally take a bathroom break to avoid watching.

Like the similar, funnier Bring It On, Drumline is intent on proving that marching band participants are genuine athletes. Fair enough: The boot camp-style physical training they go through onscreen will come as an eye-opener to some. Also similar to its cinematic cheerleader predecessor is the notion that at this school, no one cares about the football team; it's the marching band that goes to state contests, but they've been on a losing streak lately. The triumph of long shots over adversity is a popular theme, and as a hook, it's serviceable. The problem is that sooner or later you're going to have to watch, and listen to, many scenes of a teen brass band performing renditions of soul songs. And that's if you're lucky -- some of the bands featured herein are not as savvy with their song choices.

Our hero is, natch, a fish out of water -- name of Devon Miles (Nickelodeon star Nick Cannon) -- has an absent father, calls New York home. Recruited by an Atlanta college called A&T by coach Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones in a rare and none-too-impressive dramatic turn), Devon shows off his mad skills despite the fact that he hasn't yet earned the right to do so, or worked his way up the team hierarchy. We're supposed to be on his side, or so it seems, but antagonistic upperclassman (and surrogate drill instructor) Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts of He Got Game) appears perfectly reasonable when he yells at Devon for getting cocky, or forces him to do extra pushups for mouthing off. It's not like Devon is rebelling against unjust rules; rather, he's voluntarily going for glory in a tough program, and expecting everyone to welcome him with open arms at every stage.

There's a love interest, dancer Laila (Zoe Saldana, better in Crossroads), who's also a philosophy major, but only because her parents are pressuring her to be so (Devon's response: "Damn, girl, you part of Oprah's book club?"). There's a rival school, which does better in band contests because they use contemporary songs, something Dr. Lee won't do because he's one of those buttoned-down black men who loathes hip-hop and doesn't consider it music (to ensure our sympathies remain in the right place, however, the rival coach turns out to be dishonest). And there are a bunch of cipher sidekicks, including a token white guy, token macho chick, token fat guy, and token frat boy. Of these, only the white boy (played by the simply named GQ) gets any kind of decent subplot, one that (surprise!) involves him learning how to get rhythm.

If movies are about being able to identify ourselves onscreen, it's a good thing that Drumline exists (in case the more limited release Our Song didn't play your town last year), simply so marching band alumni have a movie that tries to fairly represent their college experience. They may also better understand the climax: Why, during the final showdown, is it just the drumlines squaring off minus the rest of the band? That doesn't mean it'll all be entertaining for the rest of us, though: There aren't any movies accurately depicting, for instance, the folks who remained virgins throughout college either, and do you know why? Because they're no fun to watch for anyone who doesn't relate. Same here, though the instructional pictures that run side by side with the end credits are a nice touch.

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