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June 02, 2003

DVD Journal: "Drumline"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I am one sorry arts buff and one sorry American, I confess it here and now. Why? Because I've always felt in my heart of hearts that one of the great American art forms is the African-American marching band tradition, yet I've never really looked into the phenomenon. In fact, I know nothing more about it (and have no more experience of it) than does any kid who grew up watching college-football halftime shows on TV.

But, good heavens, those memories are so vivid -- I loved those marching bands -- that they make me want to do penance for not following up on the pleasures they represent. I feel like I've done a disservice to life itself. Auggghhhhh!!! (Sound of me knocking my head against a wall for being so negligent, then falling to my knees and begging forgiveness.)

So I was thrilled to hear about the movie Drumline, apparently the very first feature ever made about African-American marching bands. I rented the DVD last night. Have you seen it? Well, it ain't all it could be, let's say that flat out. Much of it's almost childishly bad -- a Cuisinarted mush of every sports-movie and "Officer and a Gentleman" cliche you could ever come up with and then some, directed in a way that made The Wife lean over and say to me, "I feel like this has nothing to do with movies. It's making me feel like an alien, 80 years from now, trying to make sense of what this was." Market-driven yet naive is how it feels. You watch the movie convinced that the script wasn't written, it was hashed out by a conference room full of accountants.

Brace yourself for the tale of the big-city hotshot who's got to get past his ego and learn how to be part of the team -- only the hotshot here is a snare drummer, and the team is the band. Every little narrative element that gets raised gets returned to, including a number I'd have been happier to see dropped. Lessons are learned to the right of you, lessons are learned to the left of you. The movie's also a textbook case of either underbudgeting or ineptness: you've never seen such a lousily-realized "college" atmosphere, or such badly disguised "crowds." Did they even bother asking the 50 people they hired to sit in the stadium seats to change costumes when they went and sat on the other side of the stadium to cheer the other band?

Not enough of this

The ultimate disappointment is that there isn't nearly enough marching, and what's there is so chopped up you barely get a sense of what the routines are meant to be. Bob Fosse, dude, I loved what you did yourself. But can't you make everyone else stop it, now?

Subject for a future blog posting: "Fear of not cutting a scene to shreds."

Still: cute performers, some snazzy footwork, glimpses of a lot of supersexy cheerleaders, two or three witty band moments, and the outrageously pretty, talented and self-possessed Zoe Saldana as the should-I-be-a-philosophy-or-a-dance-major luvvvv interest. And the great subject, of course. Credit where credit's due: The film has a half-a-dozen heart-burstingly (if corny) emotional moments that, these days, I seem to run across only at African-American films (even allowing for the fact that most of the production people behind "Drumline" seem to have been white). I remember wiping away similar happy/sad tears while watching "Barbershop." The way those moments feel -- hey, is that what's meant by "soul"? If so, I'm thrilled to realize that even if I don't have any myself, at least I'm capable of responding to a resonant display of it.

What did I learn about the African-American marching band world by watching the movie? How to know for sure? The movie was so synthetic that you don't exactly watch it feeling confident that the sociological-research end of things has been well taken care of. Cliches obscure your vision like clouds of gnats. Still, I gather that there are a variety of approaches -- "Old School," (classier, relying on older music), and "Show marching," which is up to the minute, flashy -- and the cheerleaders! My heavens, when did good girls start taking classes in pole dancing and lap dancing?

Do their parents know about the choreography?

There seems to be a tradition too of showdowns between the drum corps. One band's drumline is given a minute or so to do some flashy, defiant stuff, then the other drumline responds, back and forth a few times. They're like shootouts, or the African American tradition of "trading twelves." Hey, look at me: I just used the expression "trading twelves"! (I think I've got that right, anyway -- eager for correction here if I haven't.)

I confess that I've done enough Googling on +African +American +marching +bands to learn that these bands are a big, big thing at a lot of southern colleges. There's money, pride, competitions, traditions, star conductors, scholarships, etc etc. One especially meaty site is here.

Wait, I have run across one other bit of culture relating to the tradition: the wonderful opening pages of Barry Hannah's novel "Geronimo Rex." Here's just a little bit of that passage:

First time they hit the field at an early September football game, it was celestial -- a blue marching orchestra dropped out of the blue stars. The spectators just couldn't imagine this big and fine a noise. They were so good the football teams hesitated to follow them; the players trickled out late to the second half, not believing they were good enough to step on the same turf that the Dream of Pines band had stepped on. The whites living on the border of the mills heard it, and it was so spectacular to the ear, emanating from near the colored high school, they thought it must be evil. I mean this was a band that played Sousa marches and made the sky bang together.

Lordy, I'm tear-ing up as I type these words. Why haven't I made pilgrimages to these schools and shows?

As a movie, "Drumline" may not quite make it to so-so. But as a symbol of the existence of the African-American marching band world, it was good enough to remind me -- in the most pleasant way -- of what a miserable excuse for a human being I am.

Yours shamefacedly,


posted by Michael at June 2, 2003


When I lived in Dallas, there was always a big downtown parade at the start of the State Fair (which is a big, huge deal in Texas) and it would always include marching bands from african American highschools. They were the coolest things in the world. Half the people in my high rise building workplace would be lined up at the windows watching and just laughing in pleasure as they went by. They make dreary old white marching bands just seem dumb. The footwork and dancing and drumming was just a revelation.

Posted by: annette on June 3, 2003 8:28 AM

Hi Annette -- I envy you seeing these bands. love lots of different kinds of art. But there's nothing quite like the mood-lift these bands deliver, is there? And the way it hits you so fast -- it's wham, and you're full of good (and big!) feelings. Phew -- love it.

There's got to be a scholar of the form out there somewhere who can tell us a few interesting and useful things about it. But maybe people's personal reactions and stories are more interesting...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 3, 2003 10:07 AM

thanks for your outstanding review of "drumline". the barry hannah excerpt was a nice touch. you needn't apologize for lacking soul. believe me, you've got plenty. there definitely is something very powerful and earthy about african-american marching bands. As the doors’ keyboardist ray manzarek once said (and I paraphrase): “if it weren’t for african-americans, we’d all still be dancing the minuet on our tippy toes.” amen to that brother.

Posted by: william sauer on June 3, 2003 1:06 PM

Years ago, when I lived in the Chicago suburbs, late summer would always bring a spate of radio commercials for a big national marching band competition held at one of the local high schools. The ads would be excitingly produced, with flurries of big brass music in the background, and an enthusiastic announcer rattling off the names of the bands... Something like, "The Newark Cavaliers face off against the Plainfield Crusaders in a stunning spectacle of color, music, and precision maneuver!" But somehow, no matter how thrilling the desperate announcer tried to make it all, the prospect of sitting in bleachers on a hot, sultry, muggy and buggy August night in the Chicago suburbs and watching kids in uniforms march around did not entice me to go out and buy a ticket. One year, I saw news coverage on TV of the show, and noticed that the stands were nearly empty of spectators, as though the frenetic radio commercials had not been able to break through mass sales resistance. Marching band competition looked like something you'd really have to be involved with to understand well enough to care about, especially on a late August night in Illinois.
Your review of "drumline" makes it sound as though something more interesting than I thought was going on, and maybe I missed something by not investigating further... (But is marching band competition entirely an African-American thing? That didn't seem to come through in the coverage of the Chicago event I remember...)

Posted by: Dwight Decker on June 3, 2003 1:35 PM

Hey WS, Thanks, you're too generous. I can tell you've got some of the real stuff yourself. And thanks for stopping by.

Hey Dwight, Sorry, I should have made it clear. There's a big white marching-band world too -- generally very foursquare, drum-and-bugle-corps, "Music Man," although with some hilarious quirkiness and eccentricity. Am I remembering right that the Stanford band has a rep as very funny? But the Af-Am bands are something else. They goose all the conventions, do wild music arrangements, and introduce wonderful movements into the world -- swinging the horns and drums around, etc etc. Kind of like a swing band (picture all the horns standing up together, then pointing their instruments in one direction together), but with movements choreographed by Motown. Amazingly great. I wish the movie caught more of the high of it, but what's there's pretty good anyway. I'd love to hear how you respond if you take a look at the movie.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 3, 2003 3:13 PM

Hi friends !

little comment: it must have been around 1990 in inner city vienna / Austria in summer, when an Afro American marching band really made me weap of happiness and joy. God they were soo funky. They had a Sousaphone of course and one guy each on snare and on bass drum. but they sounded like the best rhythm section of motown.they had a sound like the early commodores or E.W& F.
they played tunes of E.W.& F Stevie Wonder, the commodores and so on. Itī s such a shame I didnt remember their names, only remember that their band color was red and black. Im no musical racist and also experienced fantastic american choir music and they were mainly white( in Salzburg ) but those soul and funk masters marching band in the middle of all-classic-vienna will be a memory for my whole life.

Posted by: niki Bandian on April 8, 2004 6:46 PM

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