RIORI Presents Installment #209: Charles Stone III’s “Drumline” (2002)

The Film…

The Players…

Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones, Leonard Roberts and J Anthony Brown, with Gregory ‘GQ’ Quiyum, Jason Weaver, Earl C Poitier, Candace Carey, Shay Roundtree and Miguel A Gaetan.

The Plot…

Welcome to the world of high-energy, show-style, ultra-competitive college marching bands. Fish-out-of-water but tenacious Devon has earned a scholarship for his musical (read: drumming) prowess. But can some talented Harlem street drummer in need of an attitude adjustment who enrolls in a Southern university can hope to lead his marching band’s drumline to fame?

It’s show—er—half time!

The Rant…

If you’ve all be following this blog you probably have heard me wax philosophical about my years playing in my alma mater‘s marching band. If you haven’t (or even have) then here comes a snootful. But first consider this:

Have you ever been away from home for an extended period of time? I’m not talking about a vacation, but to a place that you may be unceremoniously plopped into for any number of perhaps serious reasons. You finally landed your dream job! But it’s on-site and you live in New York and now you must jet off to LA and crash in some hotel for an indefinite period of time until proper lodgings are found. Perhaps you’re a soldier, constantly deployed where you are needed, never getting fully accustomed to being in country for any solid tour of duty. Or maybe—you may have seen this coming—you’re entering your freshman year at university, and the school is light-years away from your home town, and everything you knew.

So what do all these scenarios have in common? Right. Welcome to your new normal, with overturned suitcases and the laptop on constant charge. Repositioning via one chopper sortie after the next to another hot spot, same as all the other random patches of indifferent desert. Fast realizing you have to know how to take legible class notes, calling in sick to class means an absent mark and Mom ain’t around to make your bed anymore. It can be unsettling. Heck, to the point unnerving would be a better word.

That new normal? It’s really a clean slate. Humans are social creatures, and what do we do when we’re out of the cradle and endlessly rocking? Right. Seek out friendly, like-minded people to bond with. Find a kinda ersatz family, because others may be just as bamboozled by their new normal as you are, be it a career climber, someone in the service, or a wet-eared college student. Like attracts like and all of that jazz. At heart we all need a safe place to fall, regardless where the net can be found.

So yeah, the key to getting comfortable is all about befriending like-minded people. Mr Corporate Ladder will eventually settle into some new digs, but FFS won’t make the landlord their new bestie. An old army friend of mine was in the Rangers, and no he never saw combat, but being stationed in Germany gave him the luxury of soaking up the local culture, making some civvie friends and learned an appreciation for all things German (even their hostile cuisine). And me? I went to university already enrolled in the marching band. There was a partial academic scholarship attached (it was more like a gift certificate), but I learned a wealth more bonding with my extended musical family than any meal ticket would offer. Namely, like-minded people, despite our disparate hometowns away.

Now a warning. As the immortal imperative of John Holmes was: this may get a little long.

I’ve already commented here at RIORI that I was a bando. Marching band geek, from high school, well through college and even grad school for a time. No diggity, no doubt. It’s almost like deja vu at this point. But just consider that one time when you were far from home—not to chill in Hawaii, mind you—did you have a desire to get comfortable in your new digs by almost instinctively seeking out some safe haven? I had been in marching bands all through adolescence. That facet of my personality became a safe haven via proxy thanks to my collegiate credit/discount. I knew what it was like being in a marching band, so thank goodness for the Syracuse Orange  to ease into my new normal. It was akin to the football team practices, or why folks rush the Greek System: get in where you fit in, if only to find some semblance of a family.

Follow me? Sure you do. You’ve all been in a similar homesick bind, and that’s cool. At least with hindsight.

Okay. Time to please forgive my indulgence. Heck, the following may come across as a “yep, been there” satori, hopefully placing a small smile on your face. You finally managed to find a new comfort zone. Even if you never played a musical instrument. Time for a march down memory lane. Cool? Good.

Dateline: the early 90s. I had finished high school and was terrified about leaving the nest. Despite I had long since had enough of the LV, that and high school was a constant, roaming migraine, moving away to far away shores was unknown and kinda scary prospect. Terra incognita. I recall me being in tears about leaving home and my father (who had the flu at the time and was as patient as a starving owl) screeched at me to get my sh*t together cuz we’d be leaving for school in the morning. By we he meant me and my mom.

Three miserable hours later up North  I-80 I met my quarry: the band camp freshman dorm. Allegedly the architect of the heap once designed prisons. It showed. Couldn’t find a decent parking spot to disembark anywhere, and my trunk was heavy. Not to mention my drumkit. My mum, god bless her. I was trying to teach myself how to play drums in my senior year, and got kinda good sorta. I got it into my Mountain Dew addled head that college band would be a gateway drug to forming a rock band or something. I had the gear, all I needed were like-minded people with a garage to let. I was very stupid.

Very. Band camp allowed precious time to do any canvasing. I settled into my new squat in stir, which would be mine proper for the first semester. For the rest of the campers my dorm was their barracks. No hots and a cot, that was all. My short term roomie Chris was the squad leader for the mellophones (the marching band equivalent of a French horn, which resembles a trumpet on steroids), and he was amazed, if also scoffing at my drum kit I managed to set up and wedge into the corner of my room. Regarding that prison allegory, the room was a postage stamp. Putting exaggerations aside, the room was a square 25 by 25 feet, not including the space taken up by the bed, closet, console, desk and a lone study chair. Consider this analogy: ever enjoy a Hershey bar? Sure you have, and all its choco goodness lets you take it apart, piece by piece, to either share or dump down your gullet. Right, well take apart my room’s arrangement, bite by bite and I was left with maybe 10 square feet…on my side of the room. Drumkit and all. Again, I was very stupid. And also very much into flannel and goatees since it was the early 90s. Dumbass.

What possessed me to further crowd the matchbook that was my dorm room escapes me. Knowledge comes with time and 20 odd years on I still don’t grok what I was thinking. I suppose in hindsight I just wanted to project an image of a true music fan. That and the garage thing. Perhaps scoring tail. Who knows? But what I soon knew were the almost unbearable rigors of university band camp and my little nest was transient at best. No time to dick around on the trap set. Look at your friend the pillow. You will render her a widow.

I recall Chris being groggily awakened by senior bandos around 6 AM for the two weeks. I was a frosh and was granted an extra half hour; Chris was my alarm clock. This was new, and not just sharing a pillbox of a dorm room. In the high school marching band I went to bed around midnight and sprang alive at 6 AM to get to practice on time. I don’t know how I did that 5 days a week (this was pre-Red Bull mind you). I had an that extra half hour, yet somehow always had a sensation of exhaustion I had never experienced. Daily band camp was a 10 hour rigor, 6 days a week, begin at 7 and finish practice at 5. Long days. I first fell asleep upright in the shower by day 3 and it happened twice more resulting in my being late to practice marching on some very unyielding astroturf. My superiors were enthralled by me being tardy, but I wasn’t alone. It was a kind of rite of passage for the newbs. Never happened again come sophomore year. BTW, never walk around on astroturf barefoot for a pronounced period of time. The soles of your feet will look like a pedicure performed via cheese grater. Don’t ask and live and learn.

This may be kind of a spoiler, but if you actually plan on scanning Drumline (which of course I wish you would) a lot of the showmanship the bands displayed was pretty much on the mark. Director Stone was on his school’s marching band, therefore he knew what he saw what he cut. I can only assume. It’s like when you catch a film revolving around a very specific plot point, and you knew the director and/or scenarist came from that school of hard knocks. Consider the culinary nods Chef or Burnt installments as good examples.

That being said band/boot camp was pretty well illustrated in this week’s movie. My uni band wasn’t nearly as flashy, but there were tunes to commit to, dance moves, positioning, a kind of passive martial law about working as a team (weakest link and yada yada yada) and making half time shows fun and boisterous. There was a good deal of hazing too, sans paddles and sneezing powder. Needless this was all new to my wet ears. Shocker. For reference check out the I Love You Beth Cooper installment or the raw high school band days. Back then it was just practice, memorizing the music and formations for football games. This was the case as with the SUMB, but on a whole different level; having to be self-reliant enough to not snooze in the bath.

Like this week’s film and adapting to a new normal, band camp became the core of a family. We all need to belong somewhere, and band camp as well as adapting to college as a whole was—in hindsight—the family away from home. I know that sounds a little too Hallmark Channel, but occasionally it’s accurate. Being in band camp was never outright indoctrinating me into my new “family,” but it was more sincere in action. The opposite being when you go for that job interview like Mr Suitcase does. When that new boss claims,”We’re a family here,” run. Run run away. Unless you applied to the Olive Garden.

I did a lot of running back then. Literally. We never had some half-baked exercise program in high school band. At uni we had too endure laps, push-ups, standing still for as long as the squad leader felt fit (no joke), crunches, jumping jacks, sculling, dead lifts, macrame, you name it. The enclosed stadium had no a/c, so water bottles were a must. Folks did indeed get dehydrated, despite being shielded from the sun; it got hot in there. Some frosted actually passed out from the strain and mid-August heat. Only the newbs, though. My sophomore turn I got it. Call it culture shock.

Was it worth it? Well, yeah. We had to practice, but there were fringe benefits, too. Kind of like Easter eggs. I was well acquainted with the campus far before my freshman dorm mates settled in. The upperclassmen bandos had introduced me to the restaurants, bars and assorted social shortcuts my other newbs may find by  only stumbling in the places I learned not to be after dark. As well as where to be after dark. All of this discovery tempered by a grueling practice schedule. My ears dried out some when interacting with civvies.

To wit, I was the only guy settled in well before the rest of the floor made their beds and found where to score pencil shavings as gourmet weed. However I also possessed the presence of touch-and-go like some teeth-grinding ninja. I was the transient figure, darting in and out of my room to the stadium daily (I still had calls to make to confirm class attendance. The Internet wasn’t as reliable then as it’s not reliable now) and I was the momentary weirdo oracle. I knew this and I knew that and was a bando always in a sweat. To the quick I once stormed out of the elevator while all my floor mates were socializing to blunder onto my email account. No mobile smartphones back then.

One of them asked, “Hey man, what’s up?”

I spat out, “My blood pressure.” and kept on storming. They laughed.

My mind and body were too busy with music, formations and the promise of the local, divest, hole in the wall bar come Saturday night that was very loose with the drinking age. If not there when we were set loose some house party at some rundown rental house of bando upperclassmen. Such elegant destinations were the first places I was subjected to Beast, drinking games and basement mischief (read: how to try and play bass. Geddy Lee I wasn’t). Zoom, Schwartz, Profigliano.

Considering my wayback machine, my adoptive family prepped me for college better than any freshman seminar. For good or for ill. My trunk was completely unpacked, I was with my soldiers at uni with this crack team who knew that the meal program was a sham (use the ice machine gingerly and never try the green scrambled eggs come Sunday, or the greenish hot dogs ever). There were many other variations on not dropping soap.

That dang shower…

The Story…

In the course of musical history there have been precious few shining stars than could be dubbed a prodigy. Mozart with his works, Hendrix with his guitar, Gould with his piano. And maybe Devon Miles (Cannon) with his snare drum.

D is a singular, natural talent with the drums. So much so his skills have granted him musical scholarship at the prestigious Atlanta Technical University. This means big deal performance in its high level marching band, full of pomp and circumstance.

But D is a loose cannon. His NYC street cred does not gel with the ultra disciplined ATC marching band. Even though music theory-minded conductor Dr Lee (Jones) recognizes D as a prodigious talent that whips a crowd into a frenzy. But there is always music first and showmanship later. And solos are a privilege.

The truth is that any musical prodigy, for all their sunshine, carries a heavy load. Bukowski drank himself to death. Mozart was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave. Lennon was shot by a fan. Heavy. D is on the up and up, however and finds a loyal family never known back in Harlem. At ATC his skills might be fully attained. Namely some discipline, lay off the lone wolf stuff and of course accept rigors of band camp.

Not to mention ignoring the ribbing from the tuba line…

The Breakdown…

Before I carry on carrying on, I feel I must tell you that Drumline is a niche movie. Like the aforementioned Burnt, which reeked of my then career as a chef, I took a shine to this movie based on my band camp days, but I will be objective. Never fear. I can be professional when I want to be. But I probably won’t.

Kinda like the well-oiled machines that were the marching bands in Drumline the movie was very well produced, with crisp cinematography and tight direction. I again suspect director Stone drew from experiences in college band. It was deftly translated with verve and nods to us not only in the niche but curious onlookers alike. If you’re a faithful sub you know how pacing is my bitch. This movie’s cadence bounced along with only a little murk. Drumline was overall a friendly flick, but I sensed that Stone felt obligated to throw a sop to the folks in the crowd who may have needed a break from the non-stop military precision which the plot demanded. It was a bright and colorful movie, and not just for the acting and direction. It was at times a tough watch, but there were enough twists (and the delight of camaraderie) to keep the tone upbeat.

Yes, Drumline had wonderful pacing. Maybe the best I’ve ever enjoyed here at RIORI. The story unfolded over a course of two hours, but slid by effortlessly. There was a kind of rough and tumble aspect to the plot, and somewhat forced sophomoric drama, but it kinda paid off in the end. However that end was the terminus of a very twisting roller coaster ride. The “serious” scenes in the movie did not really gel regarding the whole of the plot. Such scenes acted like bookends. Chapter marks. For a flick so dependent on motion, these halts were kinda jarring (EG: the fraternity scene that came out of nowhere) as if we were watching another movie. This happened often, which despite great pacing such hiccups were rather distracting. Overall, let’s say that Drumline was better than the sum of its parts. That’s all I’m saying.

Some of those parts are when director Stone pulled the cards away from his chest. For release the acting was choice. Meaning the principals acted very unlike what audiences are accustomed to. For one Orlando Jones, MadTV alumnus and former 7-Up pitchman was Dr Lee, all music theory, serious academic and father figure to his students. The man did not mug the camera once. His Lee was hard-nosed, somewhat egotistical but always kept his musician students foremost in his mind. IMHO Jones’ character was the most engaging (but nothing like my old band instructor, what with his taste for beer and arm wrestling. No joke). Jones as not goofy was good. He impressed me.

Our lead, a young Nick Cannon (barely 21 at the time)—although holding his role well—was a cipher. The impoverished but brilliant kid from the wrong side of town trope is the archetype of any black kid with a chip on their shoulder (EG: check out the Finding Forrester or Roll Bounce posts) with some gift that needs fostering. It’s rather tired, however Cannon did well with what was given, albeit one note. His performance improved when the script permitted him to open up some as a character. For instance we learn at the outset D is estranged from his dad (duh) and carries around his percussive prowess like a totem. It’s in the third act—natch—that he learns his old man REDACTED and D gets his sh*t together and learns how to be a member of the drumline not as a hotshot, but a team player. So to speak. It’s all been done before, and better, but Cannon’s enthusiasm wins you over. If only that, but here it’s just enough. In the endgame Drumline is your typical “the student has become the master” and back again setup. Thank Cannon’s youthful enthusiasm to make it slide by.

Drumline‘s central thread reminded me of the parable about the Prodigal Son. In fact it was, but in reverse. C’mon, you’ve all heard the tale. Kid gets kicked out his home by dad for his wicked ways. The real world smacks the son upside the head with a fistful of nails, and he crawls back home with his tail between his legs. Inexplicably Dad welcomes kid back with open arms. Draw curtain, house lights up. Now we’re left with that simply, frank question: why FFS? And how does this relate to the movie? Tell us, O Great Karnak.

I felt that the throughput in Drumline was the adage of the Prodigal Son. What I meant by in reverse is thus: D has a dad, which he successfully avoided since whenever (despite whatever influence D absorbed). That being said, D is whisked away to college with a scholarship attached to his somewhat maverick but excellent musicianship. He fast learns that being on the drumline is as close as he knows to be a family. D gets knocked out of his shallow life and discovers there are people out there who share his ups and downs. This is far more valuable than any advice his mom ever gave, let alone high school. D doesn’t have to be the odd one out anymore.

So where does this prodigal (read: wastefully or recklessly extravagant) element come into play? Right, introduce the father figure D as been for lacking. Considering the push-and-pull dynamic between D and Dr Lee in how ATC’s drumline worsk as a solid unit, my ever surprising stated with assuredness that when people are hard on you your instinct says that they’re trying to play you the fool. In fact they want you to do better. You learn more from the hardest teachers. True that, and I may add such discipline may ready you to be your own teacher. D being essentially rudderless all his young life, Lee served as the paternal force that not only gives D focus, but also is swift to say, “Knock off the sh*t.” You wanna be a good student? Shut up and hear the expert out. More kudos for Jones’ performance.

Pretty heady, right? A fair chunk of Drumline is about discovery; coming of age stuff. A prime example of growing into yourself was well illustrated by the lone white guy Jayson (GQ), the awkward bass drummer on the line. Apropos of nothing, why is such tokenism rife and accepted in movies with a predominantly black cast? Drumline was a character dramady, we always need an odd duck (in a flock of odd ducks) to serve as a loose cannon. No big, but at the time away at uni (recall the new normal, Mr Suitcase) you are naked to the quick. Drumline did a fine job illustrating that awkwardness, and if you ever had to go to college there’s always room for a fresh start. Despite that Jayson was a lovable rouge—if not a bit…sorry, wiggerish—he served the role of foil with his ineptitude with the drum against D’s prodigal skills therein. Look, I find tokenism a drab gimmick in flicks like this, but when D was able to help Jayson get his groove back? Hey, what are friends for no matter where they came from? Sappy? Maybe. True? Often. Go enroll somewhere.

What I took away from watching Drumline (despite the nostalgic sh*t) is the flick reeked in a good way of a new normal fostered by a new family. Sure, the highlights of the movie were all about making music, but ultimately that was eyewash. Drumline was about disparate people coming together to create a family. To get in where you fit in, growing pains and all. Yes, again the plot was threadbare; we’ve seen this kind of underdog story before and again and so on and so forth. Or at least competently (EG: Major League, The Karate Kid, and the original Rocky spring immediately to mind). But such is a tried and true crowd pleaser, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, I ain’t that cynical.

That and about making music. Can’t forget making music together. Not to mention a few slumber parties in the early morning shower. If only to wash out mouthpieces.

Oh, and that drumkit? Sold it for a durable washing machine. Being broke/getting older sucks.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for the scoop and serve story. The music makes up for the overworked warhorse of a plot.

The Musings…

  • “Good morning to music.”
  • Mini-Me. Ha.
  • D’s not staring at Dr Lee. D’s sizing up the crowd.
  • “Do women really respond to your come ons?”
  • And that’s how you tune a drum. Yes, they need tuning.
  • Was that a Meters song?
  • “What? You two a couple now?”
  • K: The moral of the story is that with competition you can only go as far as you need to.
  • “It’s a tuba thing.”
  • So that’s why D was always improving.
  • It’s all about about freestylin’.
  • “Let’s get crunk.”

The Next Time..

“The Hate U Give little infants f*cks everybody.” – Tupac Shakur


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