John Philip Sousa and all of the Music Man’s 76 Trombones never dreamed that marching bands could be this cool. Farewell to the nerdy reputation for “band camp.” “Drumline” makes marching bands as soul-stirring as raise-the-roof gospel and more irresistibly, foot-stompingly, hip-hoppily thrilling than any video currently playing on MTV.
It’s a simple story, but very winningly told. Devon (Nickelodeon’s Nick Cannon) is a spirited kid who wins a full scholarship to college for his drum playing. The school, the fictitious Atlanta A&T, has a world-class marching band that hasn’t won the big competition sponsored by BET television, and the school’s president has put a lot of pressure on the bandmaster Dr. Lee, (Orlando Jones) to do whatever it takes to beat cross-town rival (and real-life marching band champs), Morris Brown College. But Lee believes that his job is to teach his students about music and about character, even at the cost of losing. At the center of this argument is Devon, whose flashy style and buoyant self-confidence put him at odds with the band’s most sacred commitment: “one band, one sound.”
We first see Devon at his high school graduation, adding a few unscripted licks to a drum performance, thanking his mother, and then before going to his party, stopping by to confront his father with grace and dignity, letting him know that he has managed to achieve success even without his help or support. We see that Devon is talented, confident, and headstrong, but that he is also acutely aware of his struggle to achieve all he has so far and of the challenges ahead as he leaves home for the first time.
He arrives at A&T to find something like boot camp. The student director of the “drumline,” Sean (Leonard Roberts) is the drill sergeant, and he and Devon are like two rams getting ready to head-butt each other in a battle for dominance. Devon also has to learn that his bravado won’t get him very far with Laila (Zoe Saldana), the pretty upper-classman who leads the band’s dancers. Devon has to pay the price for some mistakes, from not reading to the end of the rule-book to having lied on his application. He learns that “one band, one sound” is about more than the music.
The movie is about more than music, too. The band numbers themselves would be more than worth the price of admission, but the story and the characters hold their own. The story may be an old one, but the details of this unexplored world make it seem fresh and the very appealing performers make it seem real. Orlando Jones is one of the most talented comic actors in movies today, but in this decidedly un-comic role he manages to make Dr. Lee seem dedicated and principled without being priggish or inflexible. Cannon is outstanding, making us believe in Devon’s talent and charm. Cannon makes Devon confident and vulnerable at the same time, and lets us see Devon’s growth subtly and naturally.
Parents should know that the movie has some very strong language and there are some mild references to drinking and moderate references to sex, particularly comparing playing an instrument to making love. A character is accused of being a virgin. Nevertheless, the behavior of the characters is admirable. Laila makes it clear that she is interested in a boyfriend, not a brief encounter. Parents should also know that the movie addresses some racial discrimination concerns, as the one white student in the band is at first looked at with suspicion, but later accepted warmly.
Families who see this movie should talk about the conflict Dr. Lee faces as he tries to do what is best for the band. What does he decide is most important, and when, and why? Why was it important to show Devon’s confrontation with his father? How did that relationship affect his relationships with strong characters like Sean and Dr. Lee? What is it about Devon that Laila is drawn to? Why? What can you tell from the scene where each of the section leaders explains why that instrument is the most important? What does “one band, one sound” mean? Why does Dr. Lee think that honor and discipline are more important than talent?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Fame. Mature viewers should see Spike Lee’s outstanding film based on his experiences at a traditionally black college, School Daze. Families should also take a look at this website for more information about the real-life Morris Brown marching band.