Beat It

Do you take bathroom breaks to avoid football halftime antics? Stay away from Drumline.
Twentieth Century Fox

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?"

"Nah, 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."



Rated PG-13

It's either an extremely canny bit of counter-programming or a tremendously heinous mistake that Fox is this week releasing a 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 halftime antics you might normally take a bathroom break to avoid watching.

Like the funnier Bring It On did with cheerleaders, Drumline is intent on proving that marching band participants are genuine athletes. Fair enough: The boot camp-style physical training they go through on-screen will come as an eye-opener to some. Also similar to its cinematic 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 (Nickelodeon star Nick Cannon) is, natch, a fish out of water -- he goes by the name of Devon Miles, has an absent father and 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 skillz 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 push-ups 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 (Devon's response: "Damn, girl, you part of Oprah's book club?"). There's a rival school, which does better in band contests because it uses 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 his learning how to get rhythm.

If movies are about being able to identify ourselves on-screen, 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 be entertaining for the rest of us, though. There aren't any movies accurately depicting, say, 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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