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'Drumline' is better than the halftime show

Friday, December 13, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

If you think the world of marching bands is like "The Music Man," think again. It's more like "A Few Good Men" (and Women), complete with boot-camp-from-hell and fierce competition even if -- and after -- you make the team.


RATING: PG-13 for language and "innuendo"

STARRING: Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones, Leonard Roberts

DIRECTOR: Charles Stone III

WEB SITE: www.drumlinemovie.com


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"Drumline" is director Charles Stone III's charming look at the show-style band biz. Turns out, the prancing and dancing that goes on during the halftime commercials comes with major melodrama behind the scenes.

Devon (Nick Cannon), a hot-shot hip-hop drummer from Harlem, has a full music scholarship to Atlanta A&T University and a sure spot (so he thinks) on its famous Pounding Panthers' drumline. He's got the support of Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), the legendary band director, but he's also got an obstacle course ahead, consisting of his own "star" attitude, his jealous section leader (Leonard Roberts) -- and the fact that he lied when he told them he could read music.

Show bands are white as well as black, but this story is exclusively concerned with the flashy black ones. What we get from beginning to end is a demo of backstreet Balanchine at its best: flamboyant synchronicity and precision choreography set to all kinds of music, from "Flight of the Bumblebee" to the Jackson 5 and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Cannon in his debut is extremely likable and empathetic. Jones and Roberts are serious supporting players. Zoe Saldana as Devon's obligatory love interest is a better dancer than actress. A funny bit is played by GQ (that's it -- he goes by the initials), the token affirmative-action white guy in the otherwise all-black band, school and universe.

Director Stone, best known for his immortal "Whassuup?!" Budweiser spots on TV, made one previous film -- "Paid in Full" -- that turned out to be a work of unexpectedly high quality earlier this year. It was a reality-based crime drama based on three actual drug kingpins of the '70s, subsequently celebrated by rap and hip-hop artists in song and video ever since.

With "Drumline," Stone is on a roll, thanks to an intrinsically photogenic subject and an intelligent screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism and Sean Schepps.

True, we could have done without the pretentious fraternity-sorority business (and the significance of homecoming kings and queens).

In any case, Stone's second feature film -- like his first -- is admirably restrained and propelled by character development instead of mindless action. Best of all, it's full of good moves and music along the way.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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