Every holiday season needs a pleasant surprise, and this year it's "Drumline." This entertaining and enthusiastically told tale shrewdly energizes its way-familiar plot line by setting it amid one of the greatest and least-known spectacles in American sports.
That would be the world of show-style marching bands, which is a football season way of life during halftimes at such predominantly black Southern colleges and universities as Florida A&M and Grambling.
With upward of 300 gorgeously costumed and elaborately choreographed band members and dancers putting on pulsating seven-minute spectacles, it's no wonder that fans often care as much about the shows as the football games that surround them. Given a setting this intrinsically cinematic, it would be hard for a film to go far wrong, and "Drumline" doesn't.
Although the story of a brash kid who needs to come to terms with authority has seen umpteen formulaic reincarnations, writers Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps and director Charles Stone III (of "Paid in Full" and the "Whassup?" beer commercials) treat it as if it's never been done. Which, given how infrequently the world of black Southern colleges has been put on film (Spike Lee did it with "School Daze" in 1988), just might be true.
The film has also been smart in picking its lively, likable cast, starting with Nick Cannon (of TV's "The Nick Cannon Show") as Devon, a drummer from Harlem who gets a full scholarship to the mythical Atlanta A&T University to help reinvigorate its marching band.
Right off the bat, the film establishes Devon as a good kid who's serious about his music and who's had the disadvantage of growing up without a father. This is important because the young man is also an incurable wiseacre who's so enamored of his own talent that he doesn't understand that, to put it bluntly, there is no I in band. This gets him in trouble with drum-line section leader Sean (Leonard Roberts) and even grates a little on the beautiful band dance captain, Laila (Zoe Saldana), on whom he has a serious crush.
The film's pivotal character is Dr. Lee (the gifted Orlando Jones, capable of making decency sexy) as the school's musical director with the motto of "one band, one sound." An articulate believer in musicianship above all else, the doctor has to contend with not only difficult Devon but also a college president who wants the band to be livelier and do better in the annual Big Southern Classic, the Super Bowl of show-style marching band competitions.
In its attempt to cover as many bases as possible, "Drumline" ends up with a few too many plot lines, even one about the problems of one of the film's token white guys.
Still, when the bands are marching and playing, that doesn't seem to matter. If rhythm and movement are important to you, this is a film that deserves a spot on your dance card.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for innuendo and language
Times guidelines: More sweet than anything else
Nick Cannon ... Devon
Zoe Saldana ... Laila
Orlando Jones ... Dr. Lee
Leonard Roberts ... Sean
GQ ... Jayson
Fox 2000 Pictures presents a Wendy Finerman production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Charles Stone III. Producers Wendy Finerman, Timothy M. Bourne, Jody Gerson. Executive producers Dallas Austin, Greg Mooradian. Screenplay Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps. Story Shawn Schepps. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut. Editors Bill Pankow, Patricia Bowers. Costumes Salvador Perez. Music John Powell. Production design Charles C. Bennett. Art director Nicholas Scott. Set decorator Amy McGary. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.