The second feature from Charles Stone III, who made the Budweiser “Wassup?” commercials and the recent period drug-dealing drama “Paid in Full,” is a thoroughly formulaic movie–the old story of a talented but rebellious student who eventually learns the importance of teamwork while gaining respect from others for his independent spirit. The twist is that “Drumline” isn’t a sports story, at least not directly so; the central figure isn’t a football star or a hoops whiz, as would ordinarily be the case. Instead he’s a drummer, and the “team” he joins is the nationally-touted marching band at an Atlanta college. What gets him into trouble is a show-offish technique and a predilection for contemporary music, two things that both intrigue and irritate the band’s director, a disciplinarian who prefers old-style routines despite the fact that neither administrators nor school boosters like them any longer. (In a late-inning twist, it also turns out that the boy can’t read music– something that gets him automatically booted off the squad. You might call this the equivalent of the old cliche about a character who finally admits that he’s illiterate.) Naturally our hero is also surrounded by a variety of colorful teammates–the fat guy, the goofy doofus, etc.–including one who becomes his chief rival, while getting romantically involved with the most beauteous of the cheerleaders. And he’s further tempted to transfer to a nearby campus whose band director has more modern notions (and is willing to overlook the kid’s inability to read the notes, too), but also shows a disturbing tendency to be more than a little underhanded in dealing with the competition.
Clearly the only truly new element here is the musicmaking background, and it’s a fairly easy transplant; the big marching competition that’s the climax of the piece is just a less violent replacement for a championship game. Whether you’ll think the reworking worth the effort will largely depend on your tolerance for marching bands and their incessant drum-thumping. If you devoted a good deal of your energy in high school to rehearsals and on-field performances, the picture may bring back fond memories. If you can’t read a note of music but still stay glued to your TV set for half- time exhibitions during bowl games, you might find it fun too. Otherwise your enthusiasm for it will probably be far more muted.
That doesn’t mean that “Drumline” doesn’t have some virtues. Nick Cannon, who stars as the talented but obstreperous Devon, has an easy charm, and keeps the character from becoming annoying in spite of his tendency to act smugly superior. This is Cannon’s first movie–he has a series on Nickelodeon–and the performance suggests that he could have a future on the big screen. Orlando Jones does a decent change of pace from his usual goofball roles as Dr. Lee, the coach-substitute band director who, in the fashion demanded in such roles, both teaches and learns; he comes across a bit too much as a clone of Joe Morton in rigid mode, but that’s better than going in a less controlled direction. Leonard Roberts is suitably stern as the drum leader who’s initially Devon’s nemesis but eventually becomes his friend. And rapper GQ gets a few laughs as the dopey white dude who wants to break into the almost all-African American band. The picture is reasonably well-made, too: Stone keeps things running fairly smoothly, even though at about two hours it does go on. (One could say much the same thing, however, of the half-time phenomena the story is about.)
“Drumline” does raise some interesting questions about higher education. Why do these students never seem to crack a book? (Sure, there’s occasional talk about classes, and one supporting character turns out to be joining a demanding fraternity, but with the boot-camp band training, it’s doubtful the players would have time for anything else.) Then there’s the issue of money. At a time when colleges are strapped for cash, is it really a responsible use of scarce funds to provide scholarships to marching-band members? But such issues will doubtlessly never occur to most viewers, who will emerge from the picture either tapping their toes in joy or desperately searching for an aspirin, depending on their reaction to the sort of music that booms from the screen.