Sunday, August 18, 2013

Objective Movie Malice: Drumline



I once asked a friend of mine who did crime scene investigation work if she ever watched CSI. She responded by claiming that she had to be "in the right mood" to deal with the gross inaccuracies it constantly portrayed.

"If I'm in the right mindset, I can watch it like a comedy and laugh my head off," she explained. "Otherwise, watching that show while I'm in a bad mood can drive me insane."

For non-band people that have seen 2002's hit movie 'Drumline', this is the basic thought process that I have to to take them through when they say to me "I bet you really love that movie, right?!"

Now don't get me wrong; Drumline isn't the first or only movie about musicians or band instruction to get things wrong. The people who worked on 1995's Mr. Holland's Opus never seemed to have the heart to tell Richard Dreyfuss that he spent a majority of the movie conducting with the wrong hand. 

Also, don't ever tell one of your struggling clarinetists to simply "play the sunset." Instead of suddenly being able to effortlessly go over the break, they will most likely look at you with fearful bewilderment or proceed to make a noise that sounds like a goose getting punched.


"Good lord...that just made you sound even worse!"


But Drumline's mistakes and inaccuracies reach such a degree that it starts to become unfathomable. This was a film that actually had fairly high production values and a great deal of talent behind it. 

Despite being primarily known these days for hosting America's Got Talent and being married to a crazy woman, Nick Cannon (who stars in the film) is a very good actor. So is the movie's female lead, Zoe Saldana. The film's cinematographer, Shane Hurlbut, is one of the best in the business.

But for any person involved in teaching band, it is readily apparent that 20th Century Fox put a much greater emphasis on their wardrobe department than they did hiring anyone to advise them on the particulars of music education at the collegiate level.

Sure, the music is great and the energy and excitement it helped to create about band was appreciated. But it also helped give people that were new to the marching/concert band world some fairly large misconceptions about how things are done...and caused those of us who have been part of it for a long time to develop headache while trying to watch it. Below is a summary along with some of the lowlights.


Drumline

The film opens with an overhead shot of Cannon's character, Devon Mays, at his high school graduation. Devon is also shown to be slouching in his chair at a completely different angle than the rest of the students so that we know he's a rebel with a bad attitude.

The fact that Devon is sitting in the audience, however, is a bit odd since the high school band (which he presumably is a part of) is playing the traditional Pomp and Circumstance graduation march.

But before you can yell "Maybe it's just the non-seniors that are playing!", Devon walks by the group...who somehow are still able to play despite most of their instruments being on the ground by their feet.


Which also might explain the awful tuning


After Devon receives his diploma, the principal addresses the assembled and and friends of the recent graduates while also introducing their "National Champion Band." We'll go ahead and assume they mean that Devon's group received first place at the Grand Nationals marching competition that year and NOT that whoever was advising the director/script writer was completely unaware that a "national championship" for band doesn't exist.

After an inspirational quote from R. Kelly (which was very unfortunate/poor sourcing in 2002), the band starts to play one of the worst arrangements of 'I Believe I Can Fly' you can possibly imagine. Luckily, Devon is able to convince the rest of the percussion section (who are all using marching equipment in a concert band setting) to liven things up with an impromptu back beat.





Devon follows up this enigmatic end to his high school music career by giving his mother flowers and telling her that he wouldn't have made it this far without her.

This is one of the last times the character will seem at all likable.

After saying goodbye to his mom, Devon immediately goes to visit his estranged father who works at a ticket taker on the New York subway system. He proceeds to hold up the entire line for 2 minutes while telling his dad what a low-life he considers him to be and that he's making it on his own without him. It feels a little harsh, but maybe it was deserved (despite the people who missed their train while he was making his speech).

The next scene, however, is where we really start to dig into the madness. A group of students (including Devon) on a bus headed to the fictional Atlanta A&T University begin introducing themselves. Jason, who seems to be channeling Jamie Kennedy's B-Rad, announces himself as a bass drum specialist.

For those of you not involved in music education, let me explain why this is so maddening. Teaching percussion (when it's done properly by any standard) should involve the student learning to play a multitude of instruments. This includes snare drum, xylophone, timpani, and bass drum.

Even the really bad band programs that only have their kids specialize in one area, however, would at least have it be snare. If a kid "specializes" in bass drum, it's probably because he came from a horrible band program AND was unable to handle the rhythmic complexities found in the snare part 

If there is a college that takes "bass drum specialists" on its drumline, I can assure you that they are going to be all types of awful.

The scene further descends into Kafka novel territory when the bus driver begins chastising the students' school for their band director's choice of music. He even goes so far as to say that he stopped driving for Atlanta A&T exclusively because of it.


...because steady work is nothing compared to stating your musical preference.


Once arriving on campus, Devon is promptly shot down by an incredibly attractive upperclassman on the dance team named Laila (okay, that part is accurate).

They are then summoned and addressed by their drum majors, one of whom refers to himself as God's Gift and also expects all band members to call him that (very accurate).

The next day, the freshman are loudly roused from their beds and rushed out onto the field. There we get to meet the band director, Dr. Lee (played by Orlando Jones), who is standing in front of a small ensemble that's playing an incredibly impressive rag time version of When the Saints Go Marching In. (To make sure that we know how much he loves and understands about music, he follows every contour of the piece with his eyebrows while his eyelids remain closed).

Dr. Lee then transforms from a band director into a drill sergeant, running a military style conditioning session that would have most band kids (and a good number of athletes) grasping for their inhalers. This was especially jarring since I kept expecting him to say something funny, but it never happens.





And in case any of you think I'm simply referring to '10 laps' as military style conditioning, the freshman (or "Crabs" as they are hilariously called) also have to run stadium steps holding up their instruments and sit in the pouring rain while holding their sticks and yelling out a cadence repeatedly.

After dealing with this cruel and unusual punishment, Devon and his roommates retreat to their dorm rooms to ice themselves and complain. Jason (or "Affirmative Action" as he's called on account of being white) brags about how he could have been a "P1 at Georgia or Georgia Tech" due to his awesome bass drum specialist skills.

The next scene shows Dr. Lee being dressed down by the university president for not playing enough popular music. He takes out this frustration by running the band through more rounds of physical punishment.

After a while (and more torture), we finally get to see the students march with their instruments while playing.

Unfortunately, this consists of the drum line section leader explaining to his section that playing the drums is like having sex. He then proceeds to give the creepiest playing demonstration imaginable while also creating the potential for a very warranted sexual harassment lawsuit.





After a few more scenes of internal section strife and Devon making an ass out of himself, we get to the auditions (or "tree shaking" as it's called). As anyone who has done a college audition can tell you, these can be terrifying enough on their own with any added factors.

But since this movie apparently had something to prove, Atlanta A&T's auditions are done in the dead of night outside on a football field...with the upperclassmen listening from above and honking their car horns to indicate whether what they heard was good or not.

To make things even more difficult, the entire thing consists of one piece of sight reading. Now if any of you have seen the movie, you know that a central point of struggle for the main character is the fact that he can't read music. Yet somehow after listening to everyone else flub through the sight reading example, Devon is able to play it almost perfectly.




Now I'm not saying that playing by ear is impossible. But in this particular instance, wouldn't it mean that at least one person (and probably a lot more) would've had to play the example better than the person listening so that they were able to perform it?

Despite this leap in logic, Devon is able to make P1 (along with somehow coasting through every All-State and chair placement audition in his "National Champion" high school band). He's also the only freshman who was able to do so, which really sucks for all the others who were actually able to sight read (or just read music at all).

Later, we see the band practicing (and inexplicably groan about having to play) Earth, Wind, and Fire's 'In The Stone.' We also get to watch Jason The Bass Drum Specialist lose his spot the day before their first game in one of the stupidest spot challenges ever.

Continuing the theme of inexplicable last minute changes, the drum line section leader also gives Devon his solo right before the band heads out onto the field for their first performance in an attempt to "break" him.

Once they get out in front of crowd, however, Devon freezes up (because he obviously never would have played in front of a large audience for his "National Championship" band back in New York). The section leader smirks and takes back the solo...

...only to have Devon completely cements himself as a total douchenozzel by taking the solo back from him in the middle of the performance AND adding a crappy lick to the end of it. He then uses this new found swagger to successfully ask out Laila, the hot upper classman dance team captain.




But after scoring with Laila at what might be the coolest looking band party to ever happen, Devon's world comes crashing down when his section leader finally exposes him as not being able to read music...by asking him to read a short piece of music (something that apparently had never happened during the last 8 years).

Dr. Lee proceeds to go into a blind rage over this revelation. His anger definitely needed to be directed somewhere, which could have been:

A.) The band director of Devon's "National Champion" band for not teaching him how to read music (or mentioning that in his recommendation letters).

B.) Himself for creating an audition process in which someone who couldn't read music was able to beat out countless others that could

...but instead ended up being

C.) At Devon for "lying" on his audition and "lying" on his college application.

As much of a tool as Devon had been so far, I think I have to side with him on this one. For starters, he didn't "lie" on his audition; he played what was asked. The fact that it was held outdoors where Devon could use his super power of hearing something and playing it by ear twice as good as it previously sounded was Dr. Lee's decision, not his.

Furthermore, I'm not sure how Devon "lied" on his college application unless it actually asked "Can you read music." If it did, than the music department at Atlanta A&T has much bigger problems than a rogue snare drummer in their ranks.

But Dr. Lee was determined to set Devon on the right path, which is why he had him enroll in a class on how to read music. If the the brief scenes of the course are any indication, it's clear that the instructor made the classic mistake of jumping right into 16th note triplets and chord structures instead of starting out with the musical alphabet and basic rhythms.


It also appears that he liked to make his bass clefs and common time
 symbols indistinguishable from each other just to keep poor Devon on his toes.


In the next scene, we are treated to a game between Atlanta A&T and Morris Brown University. The Morris Brown band gets things started with a great arrangement of 'Apache' by the Sugarhill Gang. 

Dr. Lee responds by complaining amd citing a lack of musicianship (what?) in hip-hop. He then has his band play an impressive arrangement of 'Flight of the Bumblebee. Morris Brown counters with an arrangement of 'Let Me Clear My Throat.'




I personally thought both groups were pretty great. The university president, however, was steamed. As halftime approached, he charged down towards the field and ordered Dr. Lee to put "his boy" Devon back on the field.

I don't care how invested a university president is in the school's band; the thought of one demanding that a single snare drum player (who he refers to as his "boy") be immediately placed into the show right before the band goes on the field is laughable.

What's even funnier, however, is that this edict is carried out in the form of Devon being placed back on the line (with a SOLO) for the homecoming game.

But this film continues to strive in its quest to make Devon look like the biggest jerk on the planet. During said homecoming game, he somehow manages to start an all out brawl against one of the sloppiest drum lines  that you will ever hear. This is finally reason enough to have him kicked out of the band program.




This causes Devon to head over to Morris Brown and ask the director there (who had previously expressed an interest in him) about getting a scholarship.

The director agrees, but only if Devon can provide him with Dr. Lee's play list for the upcoming BET Classic Competition. Despite being shady as hell, this line of thinking also doesn't make any sense.

For starters, what advantage did the Morris Brown director have to gain by learning A&T's songs that they were planning to perform? And furthermore, why couldn't he just go (or send someone else) TO LISTEN TO ONE OF THEIR OUTDOOR PRACTICES?

Devon (wisely) decides against throwing in with this dumbass and heads back to school, where a package from his estranged father awaits him. Inside are tapes of him playing in a band, which inspires Devon to begin creating his own music.

He heads down to the music lab, where his former section leader, Sean, is also doing some work. The two alpha males confront each other and let their feelings boil over into some type of incredibly stupid rudiment fight. It ends with both of them pointing their drumsticks in each other's faces and breathing heavily.


...maybe we should kiss to break the tension.


Meanwhile, the computer had been recording what they were doing...which must have been pretty impressive since their snare drum playing was somehow able to produce a treble clef piece in the key of D that randomly changes to bass clef in the key of C.




After marveling at Devon's ability to play basic rhythm patterns on snare while having them change clefs and key signature, Sean becomes Devon's mentor and begins teaching him how to read music.

During their partnership, Devon and Sean are somehow able to write all the parts for an impressive arrangement of old school funk and modern day hip hop. Dr. Lee beams with pride over the two former adversaries coming together to give his band a chance at winning the big competition. He then begins their rehearsals for the show by telling the students "Let's get crunk."

Fortunately, the students did not take his advice and begin heavily drinking. Instead, they begin rehearsing in earnest and things being to come together.

Meanwhile, the movie's narrative on Devon's attitude does a complete about face. To help prove that he is now a good guy, Devon helps his white bass drum specialist friend Jason learn how to play his instrument and dance at the same time...by encouraging him to pretend that he is having sex with it.





Jason uses his new man-on-bass drum love knowledge to win back his spot for the big competition (the day before it occurs).

On the evening of the BET Classic at the Georgia Dome, we are treated to a great compilation of college marching band performances. But when Morris Brown's time comes to perform, they attempt to kick things up a notch by enlisting the help of rap artist Petey Pablo, who was at the height of his popularity before fading into his current state of complete obscurity.

There are a couple of things about this that don't really work in the context of the movie:

1. Enlisting the help of a professional recording artist to basically perform a set as your marching show doesn't really seem fair or in line with the rest of competition.

2. Compared to the other bands we just heard, it actually isn't that good. The performance mostly consists of Petey Pablo screaming out hooks and lines from a few of his songs while the band stays in a concert block behind him.





Atlanta A&T follows this up by thoroughly kicking Morris Brown's ass in music, drill, and choreography...all without the help of a professional recording artist.





The judges, however, place the two schools in a tie. To break it, the competition decides to have a face off between the two drum lines at center field (completely discounting the rest of the band as a factor, apparently).

Dr. Lee and Sean then decide that it's time to let Devon (who started a violent physical altercation the last time he was involved in a drum line face off) take a spot from one of the snares who had worked and performed with the band all year up until that point. Predictably, A&T's drum line wins the face off and takes home the grand prize.

The viewer, on the other hand, is left the strong desire to bang their head against a wall repeatedly. I mean sure, the music was good and the movie had some funny moments. But if you are a musician, some of the inaccuracies and gross oversights are just too much to overcome.

Maybe feeling that way makes those of us in the band director community snobs. Perhaps we just need to lighten up and try to enjoy the movie and ignore the fact that a movie about marching band was made that apparently lacked a large amount of input from people that actually know something about the subject.

But no matter what your opinion about the film is, it still has an important message that we would all do well to remember.


Hiring Petey Pablo doesn't guarantee first place at a competition.


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