[Screen It]

(2002) (Nick Cannon, ZoŽ Saldana) (PG-13)

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Drama: A talented but egotistical drummer has to learn to be a team player rather than the individual star when he joins a prestigious college marching band.
Devon Miles (NICK CANNON) is a talented snare drummer who's received a full scholarship to Atlanta A&T to play with the marching band under the direction of Dr. James Lee (ORLANDO JONES). Joining other bandmates including Jayson (GQ), Charles (EARL C. POITIER), Ernest (JASON WEAVER) and Diedre (CANDACE CAREY), Devon learns that playing in college is vastly different from high school.

For starters, the competition with rival schools such as Morris Brown College, under the direction of Mr. Wade (J. ANTHONY BROWN), is far more intense, which also holds true for the boot camp style training. Devon doesn't get along with his upper class drill instructor, Sean Taylor (LEONARD ROBERTS), who recognizes Devon's talents, but hates his bad attitude.

When not practicing, Devon spends his time trying to get to know Laila (ZOň SALDANA), a pretty cheerleader and philosophy major who soon falls for him. Yet, Devon's brash attitude on the field eventually puts a strain on their relationship and gets him in trouble with Dr. Lee who tries to teach him that he needs to be a team player rather than an individual star.

Even so, Lee is under pressure from university president Mr. Wagner (AFEMO OMILAMI) to play more audience friendly numbers in his program and to win the upcoming BET marching band competition. To do so, it appears he'll need Devon in his band. From that point on, Devon must make various important decisions regarding his attitude, participation and future as the competition nears.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While my involvement in school bands ended in the sixth grade, I know many people who continued with such programs through high school and college. Many of them aspired to be in the marching band, although I'm not really sure why. You see, neither of them where I went to school played numbers or performed choreographed routines that were anything more than mediocre in nature.

Of course, such extracurricular activity was not particularly important at either school. Yet, I recall a visit by the Norfolk State marching band sometime back in college that was spectacular on all fronts and probably had our band members sitting in disbelief and/or envy with dropped jaws at what was possible.

Such a scenario is also on display in "Drumline," a generally engaging and well-made but mostly predictable drama that's a different beast than what the trailer otherwise indicates (which makes it seem more like a rowdy urban comedy than the character study that it really is).

That's not meant to imply that anything here is Oscar caliber. Beyond the choreographed, music "battle" scenes, the underlying plot and characters are formulaic and predictable in concept and design. The story follows the stereotypical young person who's gifted in their chosen field but has an attitude that gets in the way of reaching their goal.

Through a series of internal and external complications, he eventually sees the errors of his ways and learns to be a team player rather than the individual star. There's also the requisite wise and motivational leader, life lessons, subplot frivolity and romance, and the obligatory competitive confrontation at the end. Despite all of that, the cast and crew do manage to work in enough engaging, unique and/or charming details that the picture never feels boring or mundane.

Part of that's due to the fact that there haven't been too many mainstream movies where the primary focus is on marching bands. Having never attended a college where a great deal of emphasis and attention was placed on such activities, I can't attest to the accuracy of what director Charles Stone III ("Paid in Full) and screenwriters Tina Gordon Chism (making her debut) and Shawn Schepps ("Encino Man," "Son in Law") have presented here.

In essence, the incoming freshmen are treated like plebes in a military school. That makes sense since the goals are the same in breaking the individual for the betterment of the unit. Thus, the film often feels like such an academy picture. It will also remind many viewers of parts of "Bring It On," the high school cheerleading movie that also contained various highly choreographed programs during the big climatic competition.

They, of course, are the treat of this offering - the icing on the cake if you will - and the filmmakers wisely allow them to stand on their own. As filmed by cinematographer Shane Hurlbut ("crazy/beautiful," "The Skulls) and edited by Bill Pankow ("Femme Fatale," "Snake Eyes") and Patricia Bowers ("Paid in Full"), the various routines are nothing short of amazing to watch. That's particularly true for the percussion-only "drum-off" sequence that's rather exhilarating and highly entertaining.

As the lead, Nick Cannon (TV's "The Nick Cannon Show" and "All That") brings a certain welcomed freshness to a familiar role and does a good job playing the coming of age character who possesses both boyish and more adult qualities (even if his eventual transformation is a bit contrived). Leonard Roberts ("He Got Game," TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is also rather good playing his nemesis and brings a bit more depth to the part than one would expect for such a character.

Orlando Jones ("The Time Machine," "Evolution") - in his first serious role in some time - inhabits the usual music teacher/director character who has to compromise some of his ideals and is okay in the part. Surprisingly, his character isn't overflowing with motivational speeches (although there are some such moments), which both benefits and somewhat hurts the portrayal.

ZoŽ Saldana ("Crossroads," "Center Stage") plays the token girlfriend who has the right onscreen attitude to make the part work, while the likes of GQ ("On the Line," "What's the Worst That Could Happen?"), Earl C. Poitier ("Remember the Titans") and Jason Weaver (TV's "The Jacksons: An American Dream," "Thea") appear in supporting roles and/or for some comic relief.

I wasn't expecting much more than the familiar, repetitive and predicable from this film. Yet, it actually manages to work - within its own parameters -- despite possessing those elements, thanks to some welcomed freshness and a terrific finale. While you might not be able to dance to it, "Drumline" has a good enough beat to propel it and make being in a marching band look cool. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 6, 2002 / Posted December 13, 2002

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