Despite all the skill, pep and verve it lavishes on proving that Top 40 marching-band music won't be the sound we sinners hear in hell, Charles Stone III's "Drumline" is ultimately a sugar-coated "Rocky" whose valuable messages are forgotten 10 minutes after the last trombone honks. You could simply shrug it off as uplift pap had Stone not assembled the actors and ideas that could have made a fabulous movie dealing with themes of intercity style clashes, the repurposing of lame white culture for black empowerment and the transcending of lousy fate. Yet not only does he ignore all of these issues with great regularity, but his tale of triumph against incredible adversity doesn't have much adversity at all.
After graduating from a Harlem high school, young hip-hop drummer Devon (played by Nick Cannon with a nice balance of smolder and vulnerability) hightails it to Atlanta's fictional A&T University to study music. The concept of a hip-hop drummer, which makes about as much sense as a ragtime synthesizer player, is just one of the implausibilities that this film traffics.
Devon joins the school's "show-style" marching band, taking his place among its snare-, tom- and bass-drum players, aka the "drumline." Show-style marching-band music is sort of a hip-hop/Afro-pop/Top 40 mutation of the usual brassy half-time din, with scantily clad dancing- girl distractions. And it's surprisingly tolerable stuff, especially in the film's band-battle finale, in which the competing squads drop the gruesome brass and go drum crazy. In the process, the film almost creates a new musical genre, although, it also sounds like Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" writ, large and funky.
Anyway, wild-spirited Devon enters what is essentially boot camp for marching bands, falling under the tutelage of ultrasober music dean Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) and senior band member Sean (Leonard Roberts). Scenes where Sean gets all "Full Metal Jacket" with the new music recruits are, to say the least, not your usual.
All Devon wants is to express himself. Dr. Lee wants him to lose his ego for the betterment of the band. A rival school that comes off as Playa U wants him to be its star. Every so often, Zoe Saldana shows up to add sputtering romantic spark as the movie's love interest, Laila. Devon eventually does the right thing, which leads to that fantastic, aforementioned band battle as the missed opportunities pile up and the thematic dissonance increases.
Early on, there's a terrifically tense scene in which Devon confronts his deadbeat dad inside the subway token booth where he works. Devon, realizing what a useless louse his father is, gives him the piss-off. But the movie later makes a hash of this honest moment when Devon forgives his pop for the flimsiest of reasons, and even uses his old funk tapes as compositional inspiration. Despite Dr. Lee's love of John Coltrane and Miles Davis (not widely hailed as ego-free team players), "Drumline" is all about conformity: The band's FOX-TV-friendly motto is "One band, one sound!" So maybe this eye-blink fatherly redemption makes contextual sense.
But there's still the matter of conflict -- there isn't any. All Devon has going against him is an inability to read percussion music, which, honestly, can be learned in one semester. The daunting financial gauntlet of higher education? Not here. Devon has a complete scholarship, while Laila's education is paid for by her own daddy. And you'd expect some kind of tension between a kid from (I'm guessing) a rough Harlem neighborhood and a privileged girl, but no. Everyone even agrees on the A&T beverage of choice, in a multiminute symphony of product placement.
Even Rocky had bills to worry about -- and a screwy girlfriend, and people thinking he was a simian mook. Much like Devon, who acts as if he's reading music when he's playing it from memory, "Drumline" earns its uplift the new-fashioned way: It fakes it.
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