It's a rare treat when a movie that looks, from its synopsis and previews, to be formulaic tripe turns out to be fresh, spirited and truly entertaining. "Drumline" is just such a movie.
Built on the chassis of a sports-underdog plot, this energetic, hip, feel-good flick stars wiry, charismatic newcomer Nick Cannon as Devon, a cocky freshman marching band drummer from Harlem who arrives at Atlanta A&T expecting to become the campus king of sticks and snares without having to pay his dues.
The kid is a spectacular drummer, as he proves during an early audition scene. He flawlessly, boldly rat-a-tat-tats his way through the robust piece the bandleader (Orlando Jones) expected him to play, then adds a little solo on the end just to show off. It isn't long before he's butting heads with the drill-sergeant-like upperclassman who leads the drumline, and that guy's not about to let some snot-nosed hot shot treat his section like a back-up band for showboating solos.
So far, so predictable. But "Drumline" has unsuspected depth in both story arch and character dimension. That upperclassman (Leonard Roberts) may bark "Boy, don't you disrespect me! I own the drumline!" But he isn't the film's antagonist. He's a talented drummer, somewhat threatened Devon's talent but justifiably concerned by his insubordination. Nonetheless, he becomes the kid's ally in reforming the band's stodginess once Devon jettisons the chip from his shoulder.
Jones's bandleader provides another well fleshed-out character arc. He's responsible for that stodginess, being all about musicianship and largely unconcerned with showmanship. It takes the surprising partnership between Devon and the line leader to help him see why that's a problem when rival schools are performing thundering, pyrotechnic renditions of Jennifer Lopez songs.
More importantly, there's much more to Devon than just Cannon's funny, fly, insolently charming screen presence. He's a unique character with an interesting journey and the young actor lends real weight to the kid's troubled backstory and real affection to his budding romance with a the beautiful lead dancer for the marching band (Zoe Saldana, "Crossroads"), who is also refreshingly three-dimensional.
But director Charles Stone III (who also made this year's deeper-than-its-clichés ghetto drama "Paid In Full") knows the vitality of "Drumline" is in the music. He enthusiastically invokes the percussion-driven rhythm, the brass-section soul and the sense of fierce competition that helps make great marching bands half the fun of going to college football games.
"Drumline" has a few common-sense problems (I don't remember Devon going to class even once), but the film's only real downfall is the fact that the band's performance scenes are very badly edited. Stone employs way too many cut-cut-cut close-ups where there should be long shots from a distance that capture the large-scale gusto of a marching band's choreographed synchronicity.
As a result, the film's inevitable climax at a marching band competition (insert lame shots of nodding judges here) doesn't have much zest until it comes down to an exhilarating, centerfield duel for the championship between the rival bands' drumlines -- at which point close-ups of obstinate faces and reverberating snare drum skins are exactly what the film needs.
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 13th December 2002
Box Office USA: $56.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $57.6M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Fox 2000 Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 68 Rotten: 15
IMDB: 5.6 / 10
Director: Charles Stone III
Starring: Nick Cannon as Devon Miles, Zoe Saldana as Laila, Orlando Jones as Dr. Lee, Leonard Roberts as Sean Taylor, GQ as Jayson, Earl Poitier as Charles, Jason Weaver as Ernest, Candace Carey as Diedre, Shay Roundtree as Big Rob, Miguel A. Gaetan as Trey, J. Anthony Brown as Mr. Wade, Afemo Omilami as President Wagner, Tyreese Burnett as Henry, Brandon Hirsch as Buck Wild, Angela Elayne Gibbs as Dorothy Miles