Devon (Nick Cannon) just can’t help himself. Required to play the drippy high school band version of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” at graduation, his drumsticks take over. As soon as he changes it up, his band mates follow and the crowd gets to nodding. Even the pompously earnest bandleader, initially alarmed by the bangin’ new tempo, joins in when he sees he’s outnumbered.
Devon expects much the same reaction when he gets to Atlanta A&T, the fictional university that recruited him for his skills. The school’s show-style marching band is legendary, even if it has fallen on hard times over the past few years, losing the prestigious BET Big Southern Classic repeatedly to another, flashier band. The stakes are high: in this world, the football game provides a useful context for halftime, when the show really starts. Initially thrilled to be where he always dreamed of being, Devon soon learns that, once again, he’s slightly out of place—a raw, brilliant talent whose resistance to rules makes his hardworking, less gifted teammates anxious. (Devon’s ability to see/hear and absorb any beat is represented in a particularly clever way: he watches an upperclassman play a pattern, the film slows down, to show how he sees the sticks that are, of course, whipping through the air so fast they blur.)
The kid comes with motivated anger: his mother is supportive, but his father, a one-time drummer now working for NYC transit, has long been absent (this detail is revealed when Devon makes a quick, irate visit to dad’s ticket booth, to deliver a ticket to his own graduation ceremony, already over). At school, Devon clashes immediately with would-be father figures, including senior/drumline leader Sean (Leonard Roberts, Riley’s stern paramilitary buddy on Buffy) and the band’s stern director, Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones). Sean believes in rudiments and rituals (“We are the pulse; without a pulse, you’re dead”), and Dr. Lee not only believes in teamwork (“One band, one sound”), but also insists they play only what he considers “real” music, “Flight of the Bumblebee” or Earth, Wind & Fire, rather than the latest Mystikal single.
While Devon’s gift has allowed him to get over for most of his life, at A&T he has to submit to the “tree-shaking” that ranks musicians and determines who is on the line for any given weekend. This makes for a series of contests—granting secondary characters lines and building Devon’s trajectory toward maturity—all leading up to a final showdown with the Other Band. The sports-movie set-up is appropriate, given the teams, competitions, and tests of “manhood,” but the film changes up these conventions enough to reveal their drawbacks (underlings fighting among themselves while missing the larger forces aligned against them) as well as their benefits (learning the value of collective purpose over individual glories).
That Dr. Lee comes round to see other values complicates the film’s focus on Devon’s evolution. Lee comes to appreciate the genius of hiphop (if it’s mixed properly with the Jackson 5), so he loosens up his adherence to rules. Jones’ subdued performance is also something of a shift, recalling the dramatic promise he showed in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights. The racing of Lee’s dilemma—meaning, the fact that there are all sorts of layers and possibilities in the film’s representation of black masculinities—is at once specific and broad. And his coming to terms with Devon is a smart plot turn.
Devon’s curve is, of course, more pronounced. Not only does he get a girlfriend, wise upperclassman and supportive cheerleader-dancer, Laila (Zoë Saldana, who appeared in the lamentable Crossroads) and become a less selfish performer; he also discovers a catalog of earlier drummers, like Buddy Miles, Buddy Rich, and Dennis Chambers (not to mention his own father, who provides him with a tape of his work). Devon makes the leap, the team is thankful for it, and the film scores generic as well as emotional points.
Scripted by Shawn Schepps and Tina Gordon Chism, Drumline, follows a basic boy-learns-life-lessons plot, complete with familiar secondary characters: Jayson (GQ, who appeared in the also lamentable On the Line), the hapless-but-determined Caucasian bass player who learns to “appreciate” his instrument after rhythmic instruction from Devon; the garrulous tuba player (Earl Poitier); the tough girl, Diedre (Candace Carey), who puts the boys to shame with her one-armed push-ups, but really just wants to go out with the frat boy; and said frat boy, Ernest (Jason Weaver).
Still, these foils serve their purpose: they make Devon look relatively complex. Most importantly, he is the focus of the film’s fierce, fun energy and, no small thing, first-rate drumming (Cannon, star of a Nickelodeon series, reportedly learned some routines for the part, though much of Devon’s work is done by a double, Jason Price). Inspired in part by the high school experience of executive producer Dallas Austin (best known for producing hit records with TLC, Monica and Brandy, Boyz II Men, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, among others), the movie loves the drumline. And its enthusiasm is hard to resist.