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Movie Review

Imagine a world in which the biggest draw to collegiate stadiums is the battle between marching bands, not football teams. Imagine a world that allows these bands unlimited time to compete, oblivious to referees’ whistles and flags. Then imagine 70,000 fans not using halftime to secure a hotdog or visit the restroom, but focusing their undivided attention on the field. Drumline pictures just such a world.

Devon is a hotshot drummer, fresh out of high school and highly recruited by Atlanta A&T. But he carries a "big" secret: He can’t read music—a violation of AA&T’s cardinal rule. Still, he plays so well by ear that he’s able to hide it. AA&T has an extraordinary marching band headed by band director Dr. Lee. Lee delegates power to section leaders, giving them the authority to train students using a military boot camp approach. Section leaders come across as drill sergeants, doling out pushups and cleaning details as punishments. Lee’s old-school style isn’t restricted to his classical command structure. It also affects his music choices. He prefers songs such as "Flight of the Bumblebee" over tunes currently positioned on Billboard’s singles charts; a quirk that frustrates faculty and fans alike.

Until Devon arrived on the scene, a boy named Sean had been the band’s best drummer. But now this talented newbie is threatening his ego, not to mention his authority as percussionist section leader. It doesn’t help that Devon sports a big-time ’tude and fancies himself a Don Juan. But AA&T needs Devon if they’re going to knock out the perennial BET Big Southern Classic reigning champion Morris Brown College.

positive elements: When I was in school, band members were never given the respect they deserved. Drumline swings the pendulum as far the other way as possible, making talented band members the big men—and women—on campus. It’s as if quarterbacks wished they could play the tuba. While a happy medium would be nice, this picture does make being in the marching band not only seem worthwhile, but something young musicians should aspire to. And that’s not a bad message at all. The scenes featuring the bands competing portray first-class talent. In addition, Devon cares for his mother. He gives her flowers at his graduation. He calls her on the phone. And when he meets his father who abandoned the family, he’s quick to boast that he’s never been arrested and has earned a college scholarship. He wants his dad to realize he’s beaten the odds. When Devon fails to wake up his roommate for early practice, the whole band is punished by running laps—helping underscore the idea of teamwork. After Morris Brown’s band leader attempts to bribe Devon with an MBU scholarship in exchange for information about Dr. Lee’s plans, Devon refuses to compromise. [Spoiler Warning] Originally enemies, Sean and Devon become friends. I should note that although that’s a positive thing, it also feels forced and unnatural.

spiritual content: The band warms up to "When the Saints Come Marching In" on the first day of band practice. On one occasion Dr. Lee looks heavenward as if to thank the Lord.

sexual content: Two nightclub scenes feature students freak dancing. Female dancers often don short-shorts and extra-tight tops. Sensual dance moves (with camera angles calculated to accentuate them) are included in the bands’ routines. Sean claims that "playing drums is like making love—you can’t be looking down, getting your flow right." Coaching a fellow student in proper drum technique, Devon asks him, "When was the last time you got some?" He explains that you should "love your drum," demonstrating his point by grinding on the apparatus and letting loose sexual moans. Fortunately, Devon and his girlfriend don’t end up in bed, they just share a passionate kiss.

violent content: During a between-school drum battle, an opposing drum major throws a punch at Devon, resulting in a on-field melee.

crude or profane language: There are no fewer than a dozen s-words, plus a number of milder profanities. A bus driver repeatedly speaks of students "spanking that a--."

drug and alcohol content: At a party, students hold cups that may be filled with alcohol. A bus driver tells his passengers the band director needs a shot of booze because of his unpopular musical selections.

other negative elements: When Dr. Lee asks his band class if they would prefer to perform the music of LL Cool J or Snoop Dogg over more traditional band tunes, the students enthusiastically conclude they would. In one scene, Dr. Lee confronts Devon about lying on his application when he claimed to read music. Devon retorts, "I didn’t think it was that big of a deal."

conclusion: Drumline doesn’t push the PG-13 boundary very hard, but that not saying very much these days. It still allows for abrasive profanity, sexual jokes and sensual moves. But it’s not just objectionable content that one has to navigate. The filmmakers haven’t really given us characters we can solidly root for. Devon is a hard guy to like. Of course, we’re not supposed to like him at first because he’s all attitude and cockiness. Those things mellow and he does become more of a team player. But he’s still self-centered and shallow. He’s definitely not trying to change the world or even his school (which would have been nice). He’s just trying to be the best drummer at Atlanta A&T. Should we really be forced to care?


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