**½/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B-
starring Nick Cannon, Zoë Saldaña, Orlando Jones, GQ
screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps
directed by Charles Stone III
by Bill Chambers Appealing newcomer Nick Cannon stars in Drumline as Devon, a Harlem high-school graduate making the transition from a big fish in a small pond to a guppy in the ocean that is Atlanta A&T. Devon begins his gruelling training for A&T's mostly-black drumline on the wrong foot, wearing dark colours when white was demanded, failing to get his roommate to the first tryout on time, and claiming an instrument reserved for upper-tier members of the drumline--and refusing to give it back until he's shown some respect by veritable drill sergeant Sean (Leonard Roberts). The one bold move that works in Devon's favour at the start is hitting on Laila (Zoë Saldaña), captain of the cheerleading squad; she and Devon's superiors, including the drumline's manager, Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), aim to turn the boy into a man through demonstrations of tough love peppered with encouragement.
In Drumline, director Charles Stone III seizes on the colonial aspect of marching-band uniforms. Adopting Ridley Scott's early penchant for crawling, borderline-Shaw Brothers zooms, he finally recasts Scott's directorial debut following bored enemies throughout the Napoleonic Wars, The Duellists, as a tale of common pride, retaining its compositional symmetry and an idea of pageantry that both sanctions fury and keeps it in check. Because its imagery--which also calls to mind Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, the cinema's every modern representation of revolution (the few decent scenes in Roland Emmerich's stupid The Patriot, for instance), and even the militarism of choreographer Busby Berkeley--is far more virile than its screenplay, Drumline's seductive aesthetic is without strong narrative pillars, if a rather welcome imposition: the film's saving grace is the brilliant execution of its march numbers.
The problem with the war metaphors (or war-movie metaphors) intrinsic to the film's sequences of competition is that they fail to illuminate the remainder of Drumline. One could argue that Devon is always challenging the other characters to pissing contests, but there's no taint of battle on the scenes that fall between the drumline spectacles. Devon is either drumlining or not drumlining--likewise his compatriots, who eat hamburgers and drink sodas and harbour crushes and generally do everything but discuss the focal point of their collegiate existence: the band. Dr. Lee pushes "old school" music like Earth, Wind & Fire on his grasshoppers, yet the kids--connoisseurs, one surmises from the diegetic soundtrack selections, of rap and hip-hop--don't have much of an opinion on Dr. Lee's philosophies, neither on the field nor off of it. Again, there's no sense of preoccupation, which is crucial to a film about (a) discipline. However likeable Drumline ultimately is, the utterly distinctive drumline milieu becomes another carcass on the highway of Hollywood backdrops, a new pretext for old coming-of-age rhymes.
Drumline comes to DVD from Fox in separate widescreen and fullscreen editions. The former contains a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks flat despite splashy colouring and a high level of detail, largely because the latter was achieved through artificial methods that call attention to edge haloes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix, on the other hand, is super-fine--bassy where appropriate and wholly persuasive of stadium acoustics during the climax. As a bonus, dialogue is always crystal clear.
Supplementary material commences with a reasonably good feature-length yak-track from Stone in which he sticks to the basics: pointing out filmmaking sleights of hand and giving shout-outs to relevant cameo players. Stone follows-up his commentary with voiceover for the approximately ten deleted scenes elsewhere on the platter, and his justification for some of these cuts is up for debate: I don't agree that the finished film ends on a peak note--instead, it's a hasty retreat, and that abruptness could have been alleviated by either of the alternate denouements presented here. Too, Devon criticizes Dr. Lee's taste in music in one elided passage that goes a long way towards transforming Devon's brashness into an actual point-of-view. A BET special, "Half Time is Game Time: The Making of Drumline" (22 mins.), welcomes the urban network to the fold of glorified carnival barkers; videos for Joe feat. Jadakiss's "I Want a Girl Like You" and JC Chasez' "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)" plus trailers for Drumline's soundtrack and the inexcusable Antwone Fisher round out the disc. Originally published: March 21, 2003.