- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

Devon Miles is the Allen Iverson of "Drumline," a sinewy assortment of cornrows and attitude. It will take some discipline, and the love of a kindhearted woman, to tame this raw talent into a mean marching machine in time for the musical finale.
We have seen much of "Drumline" before, especially the bad-boy-turned-good-boy story arc. What we haven't seen in such knowing detail is the inner workings of the college marching band.
Set in the world of historically black colleges, "Drumline" acts as if football is but filler until halftime, a turnabout for anyone who grumbles that marching bands are a waste of precious turf space.
The film manages the near impossible it makes marching bands cool, despite their ponderous uniforms.
"Drumline" squanders this refreshing perspective by leaning too heavily on in-your-face confrontations better suited to a sports drama. Given the academic setting, the story could have exploredthe chill of university politics, which the film manages to do only in passing.
Still, director Charles Stone III ("Paid in Full") stages the band clashes with a giddy can-you-top-this showmanship that polishes away some of the flaws.
Mr. Stone overplays his hand with the musical sequences, but the excesses are no more egregious than, say the slugfests in Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky," in which every punch is a haymaker.
The opening scene shows Harlem teen Devon (Nickelodeon personality Nick Cannon in his screen debut) improvising a funky drum number during his high school graduation ceremony.
Seconds later, we watch him pay tribute to his mother, embarrass his absentee father and declare himself a preening force of nature above reproach. It's all too fast, especially given the film's bloated running time. Its two hours could have allowed for a more measured pace.
Diploma in hand, Devon rides the scholarship express to the fictitious Atlanta A&T; University, courtesy of his remarkable drum work.
His musical ad libs don't sit well with the marching band's director, Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), an avuncular leader who prefers Aretha Franklin to P. Diddy.
Devon's insouciance does draw the attention of Laila (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful upperclassman who should know better than to fall for his advances, but fall she does, as does everyone who hears Devon play.
Like a talented football recruit, Devon gets his way more often than not. We're supposed to root for this anti-hero, but so many chances are afforded him that it's hard to care whenever he begins acting up.
Mr. Cannon's face, a malleable instrument capable of transforming itself from tough to tender with quicksilver speed, promises an intriguing film career.
The young actor also proves adept with the drumsticks, at least to this untrained eye.
Mr. Jones fares just as well, shedding his familiar comic tics to reveal a genial film presence with considerable gravitas.
"Drumline" shines as it establishes a film mythology for the marching band, something even non-devotees will grudgingly appreciate.
Before its rousing finish, however, we endure such banalities as, "You have to learn to follow before you can lead" and, "One band, one sound."
The romance between Devon and Laila never rises above its forced nature, and the numerous intersquad challenges, in which one musician "calls out" another, with the victor earning a higher band ranking, seems swiped from the confrontational playbook for "8 Mile."
Dramatically, "Drumline" says much of what it wants to say by midfilm. The home stretch merely revisits existing conflicts, spinning them meekly into less interesting configurations.
The film also confirms a budding cliche particular to movies with mostly black casts: the clueless but lovable white character. "Drumline's" contribution, an actor named GQ, is allowed to tweak racial mores briefly before retreating to the background.
Enjoying "Drumline" will depend in part on one's tolerance for marching-band fare.
Even a Monday Night Football fanatic will feel a goose bump or two whenever "Drumline" hits a high note.

**1/2
TITLE: "Drumline"
RATING: PG-13 (Sexual innuendo in coarse language)
CREDITS: Directed by Charles Stone III. Screenplay by Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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