Bang the drum

Drumline marches to a catchy beat

Drumline sounds a call that’s hard to resist. It tells of how an insolent drumming prodigy learns to be a team player in the percussion section of a competitive college marching band, and thus it has built-in abilities to stir its audience. So many scenes are structured around the rhythms of the instruments, the rat-a-tat-tats of the snares and boom-boom-booms of the bass drums, that without even realizing it, you’re tapping your feet and nodding your head in time.

The film also has built-in appeal for local audiences, as Atlanta-based record producer Dallas Austin serves as a producer on the film and its soundtrack. Though set at the fictitious “Atlanta A&T University,” Drumline was filmed at area colleges, and features local actors like Rob Cleveland and Gary Yates in brief roles. But non-Atlantans will find plenty of enjoyment in the film, too. Although it can be cliched and manipulative, it has genuine excitement for its subject matter.

Atlanta A&T’s newest scholarship hot-shot Devon Miles (Nick Cannon) has unparalleled gifts as a snare drummer, which he knows all too well. With his arrogant attitude he frequently butts heads with high-minded music director Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) and drum major Sean (Leonard Roberts).

Scripters Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps quickly show that they’re well-versed in the dynamics of college marching bands. On the first arduous day of training, the leaders of the band’s different sections each tell their charges that they’re the real heart of the group. Like 8 Mile, Drumline depicts a fiercely competitive musical milieu, and Devon has a white buddy (played by an actor known as “GQ”) who gets challenged for his dance moves, not his musical ability.

Devon learns the requisite lessons of love and respect in his relationship with a cheerleader/ philosophy major (Zoe Saldana). But Drumline’s main conflicts take place in the rehearsal room and on the playing field. Morris Brown College’s marching band is the Apollo Creed of the film, a flashy crowd-pleasing opponent that favors hip-hop-based showmanship in sharp contrast to Dr. Lee’s old-fashioned emphasis on musical virtuosity.

You can almost feel the film’s makers wrestling with similar issues of creative integrity vs. pandering. In the opening scene, Devon puts a dance-beat flourish to a staid version of his high school graduation’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” In this kind of genre film, we’re usually nudged to applaud the mavericks who don’t play by the rules. But being a showboat is both Devon’s selling point and his Achilles heel.

These internal tensions continue to build to the battle of the bands at the BET Classic competition. We’re not just curious to see who will ultimately win as to whether the film will emphasize Devon as the sole “hero,” or the drumming team as a unit. Fortunately Drumline practices the “one band, one sound” message that Dr. Lee preaches.

A few of the geometric marching band formations can be ho-hum reminders of high school football games, but the close-up shots of the drum-line routines are full of surprises, from synchronized drumstick movements to footwork worthy of a disco floor. Only rarely does director Charles Stone III forget that full shots showing the performers head-to-toe is the best way to showcase the craft of choreography.

Drumline would be a finer film with a more accomplished actor in the lead role. We understand that Devon is full of himself, but Cannon (star of Nickelodeon’s “The Nick Cannon Show”) relies on a narrow repertoire of smug expressions. Even when Devon’s being a jerk, we’d like to see more levels to the character than we get. But Cannon’s limitations shouldn’t keep Drumline from being a sleeper hit: It’s a rousing, fun film and audiences are likely to fall in line behind it.