'One band, one sound': How 'Drumline' is the most sports movie ever

When you're making a sports movie, you need to hit all the right notes. What about when you're making a movie about hitting all the right notes?

The 2002 film Drumline is a film that doesn't feature a single second of sports (push-ups don't count as a sport), yet it is pretty much the epitome of what you would cobble together if you were building a sports movie from the ground up. Think about the standard sports movie. There's an underdog, or perhaps a maverick who Plays By His Own Rules. There's a big, scary antagonist that the main character -- or that main character's team -- will have to defeat. Along the way, you've got training montages, ups and down, conflicts, a nadir before the final confrontation and you better be damn sure there's at least one inspirational speech.

Now make that movie about some tubas. That's Drumline. Let's explore it together, shall we?

The movie begins with us being introduced to Devon Miles, played by Nick Cannon, who was somewhere between 18 and 20 when the movie was filmed but looks like he's between 10 and 15. The first shot of the film is a crane shot from overhead into a close-up. Basically every third shot in this film is a crane shot. And I'm not even getting into the aspect ratio, which is supposedly 2.35:1 but it looks like it was filmed with Geordi La Forge's visor.


After receiving his high school diploma, Devon is onstage as part of the school orchestra, playing a dirge-like rendition of "I Believe I Can Fly" that the student body looks completely bored with. The band looks even more bored with it.


They're dumb, because slow versions of R. Kelly songs are the best versions. Devon starts puttin' a little mustard on it, because he's a loose (Nick) cannon who Plays By His Own Rules. The orchestra leader is having none of this.


But since Devon is both a loose cannon AND a wild card, he continues to spice that number the heck up and soon enough the entire student body and even the faculty are picking up what he is laying down. The orchestra leader is powerless to stop this hellacious groove, resorting to breaking the fourth wall in a Flintstones-esque "IT'S A LIVING" reaction shot.


After caps are tossed into the air, Devon cuts short congratulations from his mother to ... go to the subway?

He gives a ticket to his graduation to the ticket-taker, who rightfully points out that a ticket of this sort does not grant him admission upon any train, subway or otherwise. It then becomes clear that this is Devon's (estranged) father, whom was specifically NOT invited to said graduation. He then says that, unlike his father, he's doing something with his music. (Burrrrrnnnnn.) He's gotten a full scholarship to "Atlanta A&T." This is our first big-time introduction to Nick Cannon's Face, which will be see-sawing between looking the smuggest anyone has ever looked and making his mouth really small to indicate he's angry.




aw man

And now we're on the bus to Fake School Tech! As the new meat makes their way to "Hot Atlanta" as the locals call it, Devon meets a tuba player and a couple other members of the drumline. They also pass the practice field of A&T's hated rivals, Morris Brown College, which, according to this guy driving the bus whom we never see again, is the best band in the land and constantly wins ... I dunno, regionals or whatever. Let's just say "regionals."


"Hi, I'm your bus driver, Exposition Smith. You can call me Expo!"

After the short bus ride, our four new band buddies are now lifelong friends! They get to campus and immediately begin acting supremely creepy, just straight -up full-arm pointing at women trying to walk through the quad. Here's a group shot of the Justice League of Doofuses (doofii?) caught mid-skeev. Note: this was also a crane shot. They're all crane shots. I think they only rented a crane.


Turns out that Devon is pointing at Laila, who will eventually be his love interest! What luck! That almost never happens at actual college! (But it does happen all the time in sports movies. Well played, Drumline. So far you're batting 1.000! (Sports movie term.)) It should be noted that when Devon approaches her, his game is so nonexistent that it goes beyond "douchechill" and into "I should call campus security" territory. Luckily for him, Laila finds it endearing. Like when a puppy gets its head stuck in a box. "Aw, look, he can barely function!"

Their A&T (keep wanting to type "A&M," but that's an actual college) band upperclassmen tell them to go read the rule book and that they'll all be wearing white T-shirts until they make it through training or whatever, trying to dehumanize them by saying they'll be faceless, interchangeable blank slates. Probably would have been a bigger diss if they said it was to make them look like Tim McGraw. "Here, also wear this stupid leather hat."

They also say to get a good night's sleep because it will be an early morning. But Devon says NOPE LET'S GO TO A CLUB ALL NIGHT because Devon is an idiot who Plays By His Own Rules so everyone should definitely listen to him.

Sure enough, the upperclassmen wake up everyone before 5 a.m. by running down the halls of the dorm banging a bass drum. I really, really hope the band is all in one dorm. How pissed would you be if you were a non-band freshman in that dorm at A&T? Pretty pissed, I'd wager!

So they hustle down to the practice field and another crane shot introduces us to the "coach" of this sports movie, the band director Dr. Lee, who is played by ... Orlando Jones?!?!


Yes, the "Up Yours" guy is the straightlaced by-the-book coach in this sports movie. The guy who was comic relief in an actual sports comedy. But anyway, Dr. Lee LOVES music. Loves it! Look at that rapturous look on his face while that sextet behind him plays "When the Saints Go Marching In!" He says they're all here because they love Coltrane, Miles Davis and Earth, Wind & Fire. Which is weird, because later, the band clearly hates all that stuff, but we're getting off track here.

Dr. Lee delivers his first inspirational speech, which is important in a sports movie. He says this is "one band, one sound." Devon's roommate is late to the practice field, which means Devon is also responsible, because teammatesmanship. Everyone has to run a lap (yes, one lap) and then the training begins. MONTAGE TIME.

The leader of the drumline is Sean Taylor, who immediately acts like an insane creep.


"We are the pulse. And without a pulse, you're dead." Oh, okay. I thought you were just doing kung fu upon me. Trainings happen. Drums are drummed. Horns are tootled upon. Devon and Sean butt heads because Devon is a loose cannon haven't you been paying attention?

Uh-oh, there's a lady on the drumline! Hope she doesn't challenge the new guys' preconceived notions about strength and gender!


ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

Sean takes the freshmen to where the drums are stored.


"Enjoy it now, because this may be the last time you see a drum." Is ... is he threatening to kill them? Because even if they don't make the -- team? -- they're still musicians, so. You know. They'll probably see a drum again. If you're gonna make hyperbolic threats, at least make that shit sound vaguely realistically threatening.

Devon tries to take a WHITE drum, but white drums are for closers and dammit Devon you're dangerously close to insubordination. Devon Plays By His Own Rules to such an extent that I think he's an honorary police officer. With sexy results? Well, we'll have to wait and see.

The new kids in the band have to run up and down all the steps in the stadium holding their instruments so that we can go ahead and mark that square in our Sports Movie Bingo. Other squares to check off?

- All the kids have to do drills in the rain. For some reason.


- The totes besties forevs ice their aching knees and necks and whatever in the dorm room.


- There's also a convoluted thing where the members of the band are divided into groups P1 through P4, with the supposed criteria that only P1 band peeps get to go on the field, although at the end of the film there are clearly also P2s on the field. There's also a subplot involving Devon's white best friend and how he loses his P2 spot to a P4 challenge, then regains it late in the second act. None of that stuff is really worth going into, although when the guy he challenges at the end drops his mallet, it's presented like the god damn Zapruder film.


- There is a POLITICS CLASH among the higher-ups! Dr. Lee believes in MUSICIANSHIP and the BAND and MUSIC. He thinks Morris Brown College and their well-dressed coach relies on gimmicks like HIP-HOP and SONGS THE CROWD LIKES when it should be about MUSIC THAT MEANS THINGS, like "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "September."

His reliance on NOT PANDERING TO THE CROWDS understandably has him running afoul of the school president or whomever, who is threatening to CUT THE FUNDING to the band next year if Dr. Lee doesn't fall in line. Just gonna put this out there: the president or whomever is probably correct here because probably the main point of a college band is to get the crowd pumped during games. This band is clearly big-time failing at that and it's a direct result of Dr. Lee's song selections. Just gonna suggest to this school president or whomever: firing Dr. Lee is probably a way easier fix than cutting funding to the band. I mean consider the money you've already sunk into the uniforms alone.

But Dr. Lee's clash with whomever is a good time to demonstrate how every person-to-person conflict in this movie is shot. It's a strict back-and-forth shot-matching but DIG THIS MISE-EN-SCENE:



whooooaaaaaa each guy is on a different side of the argument and also a different side of the frame that is like a metaphor of pictures

I mess with director Charles Stone III, because of crane shots and weirdo aspect ratio and one million THIS GUY IS TALKING NOW THIS GUY IS TALKING shot-for-shot scenes. But this movie really does look fantastic most of the time. I mean look at this shot:


That's just pretty. Anyway, back to the movie!

- The non-tuba, non-white BFF (who is wrapped up in another barely-thought-out subplot that should not even exist so I'm not going to discuss it) takes a moment at practice to scope out lady-drummer's rack.


Nice, dude. Real nice. Way to be 18 all over the place. Spoiler: this move ends up working.

Devon is still hitting on Laila, who is part of the dance squad. (Convenient.) He even volunteers to help with some dance moves.


Ha ha oh Devon, you idiot.

Devon keeps showing off, making Sean angry. He neglects to read the rule book, but the last rule in the rule book is "if you don't read this rule book, your head will be shaved." Whoops! Hubris, thy name is Devon. He threatens to walk off the team band, but then decides to OWN THAT SHIT.


Laila is totally smitten with Devon for absolutely no reason, to the extent that she busts out a bad Rosie Perez impression to flirt with him:


And even lends him her VW Bug so he can learn to drive. LAILA NO YOU JUST MET THIS MAN.


Devon aces his official tryout for the team, being flashy as always. He even ends up being a P1, much to the chagrin and opposition of Sean. No freshman has ever made P1 before! Sure he Plays By His Own Rules, but he gets results, you stupid chief!

So like a million years into this movie, there's finally the first game of the season! (Note: no football is shown. Not a play. There are some glimpses of people wearing football uniforms in the foreground of some shots of the band, but the closest this movie comes to showing sports is the scoreboard saying "HALFTIME.") Anyway, Sean and Devon keep getting into it and Sean challenges Devon to play the big solo in the first game, thinking he'll choke and it will humble him. But the main takeaway here is that every sports movie should have a lot of dick-waving smack-talk while wearing this:


Anyway, Devon doesn't choke OR learn his lesson, showing up Sean, making Sean and Dr. Lee super angry and THRILLING AND DELIGHTING both the student body and the president or whomever, who insists Devon play his in-your-face solo at every game forever.


Meanwhile, Devon and Laila's relationship is really heating up. He dance troupe dances at a sorority house party and then, while some other dudes stomp around, they share a super hot and not at all grody kiss.


Sean, who is scrambling for ANYTHING to bring this smug asshole down even the slightest peg, finally figures out that Devon -- gasp -- CAN'T READ MUSIC.



But that's a requirement for playing in the band! He lied to Dr. Lee! He lied to everyone! SOMEONE GET BILL HANCOCK ON THE LINE. Dr. Lee bumps Devon down to a P4 and requires him to take a rudimentary percussion class until he learns to read music. Devon of course considers quitting the team band over this, because Devon is an idiot.

Meanwhile, at Devon's face:



A&T plays against Morris Brown -- literally plays against them, because there sure isn't any footage of the football game. The Morris Brown band plays a bunch of hip-hop favorites that even the A&T band is dancing along to, including possibly the best song of all time to have a marching band play, "Let Me Clear My Throat." Note to everyone in all sports ever: please have "Let Me Clear My Throat" replace "Seven Nation Army." Throw "Seven Nation Army" down the well. Drumline existed in a world before "Seven Nation Army" and god help me, that was a better world.

But the director of Morris Brown knows he's killin' it.


The president or whomever is livid that Devon is not playing the drums and is also livid that Dr. Lee combated the Ed Lover Dance with "Flight of the Bumblebee." Admittedly, Dr. Lee, that was super weak. So Dr. Lee is being pressured into bringing Devon back, is still conflicted about it and finally comes to a decision while watching tape. Yes, in a non-sports movie, the "coach" is watching tape of the band before the next game.


So he brings Devon back and during the next week's drum-off with the opposing team/band/teamband (which they try to establish here is a thing that happens), Devon goes TOO FAR when he strolls up to the other drumline (which is totally rocking the cliche "wear m'bandhat strap under m'nose") and PLAYS THEIR DRUMS.




Devon gets HIT IN THE FACE with a drum and then there is a BAND RUMBLE.


That, finally, mercifully, is the last straw. Laila even chickens out on having her parents meet Devon. THE ULTIMATE INSULT. The band meets in secret, including this like 62-year-old dude we're expected to believe is in college:




Since this is the most sports movie ever, Devon meets with the band director at Morris Brown, who offers him a scholarship, a spot on the team and a JOB. (SERIOUSLY, HAS SOMEONE GOT THE NCAA ON THE LINE?) And all Devon has to do is give him the top-secret plans that Dr. Lee has for A&T at the BET Big Southern Classic (which is apparently this movie's version of regionals). Devon tells Morris Brown to go screw and he heads back to A&T, where someone has sent him a mysterious package.


Okay, so it's a box from his dad. And it's full of tapes!


You may remember tapes from such things as the 1980s and good lord when were you born? No, shut up, you're making me feel sad and old. Moreso, I mean. Anyway, one of the tapes is his dad's old band, The Ray Miles Funk Connection. (The fact that "Funk Connection" is the funkiest name his dad could come up with should tell you how funky his band was; not very.)

Anyway, the tapes get his drumming juices flowing again (gross) and he heads to the drum lab (not even joking) to lay down these sweet, sweet cadences. While there, he runs into Sean and SMACK TALK IS UTTERED, leading to a final, severe DRUM LAB DRUM-OFF, which ends in DEATH STICK STANDOFF.


/explosion sounds

Sean has finally reached the end of his rope but it turns out that the recorder/printout thing was on both of their drums during the drumoff and starts printing out a transcription of Devon's sweet, sweet, ultra-sweet cadences.


You can't fool me, dude. Those are all Bs and B-flats.

They have finally earned one another's respect. (No, really. They have. Even though Devon hasn't really changed. Go with them on this.) Sean offers to help Devon refine his gift. or whatever. I don't know. I've written like three thousand words at this point and do you know how much time is left in this movie? Wait for it ...

Sean and Devon convince Dr. Lee to let Devon help with the cadences, while not actually technically joining the band again. Dr. Lee finally realizes they've all lost sight of what's important: having fun. THAT IS THE MOST SPORTS MOVIE THING OF ALL. And look how much fun he's having now!


And Devon and Laila make up! Awww, I think those crazy kids are gonna be all right.


Do you know how much time is left in this movie at this point? HALF AN HOUR. 30 minutes. Deep breath, though, because we're in the home stretch.

The BET Big Southern Classic! Stuart Scott is there! THIS IS A SPORTS MOVIE.


Other marching bands play! They are all very good! One of them does this, for some reason:


One of the bands has a dance troupe dressed like this:


Which immediately cuts to this reaction from the horndog judges:


But all these other bands are filler, because we know it's coming down to A&T vs  Morris Brown. But Morris Brown has a ringer! They've brought in a super-successful and huge name rapper to perform with them. Can you guess who it is? It's only the most 2002 name in all of hip-hop. None other than PETEY PABLOOOOOOO


You don't know who Petey Pablo is? He was the one who taught America that shirts can be made to resemble helicopters. He is a national hero and I'll near nothing ill spoken of the man.

Dr. Lee has one last pep talk for his band, which ends with him telling them to "get crunk." Oh, 2002, how were you so long ago? A&T's big secret plan is to merge the past with the present. Heck, Laila's squad is even dressed up like Solid Gold dancers.


And in case the crowd doesn't get it  ....





Let's go to the judges' decision! For the first time ever, it's a TWO-WAY TIE between Morris Brown and A&T! Wow, think of what would have happened to Morris Brown WITHOUT Petey Pablo! But of course, since a tie is UNACCEPTABLE in any American sport, it is time for a sudden-death DRUMLINE-OFF! Which, remember, is totally a thing that happens. They say each band will play two cadences and then the judges will decide. I don't know why they say that, because each band ends up playing like four cadences, but whatever! We are so close to the end.

Dr. Lee reinstates Devon to the band! Whew. The bands face off like it's about to be Shaolin Soccer or something.


And indeed, the Morris Brown cymbalists (no relation to Efrain Jr.) start WHIPPING THEIR CYMBALS AROUND LIKE THEY ARE NUNCHAKU.


I'm just going to assume that this drum-off is a dream sequence, because no part of it makes sense. This is something that we've never even caught a WHIFF of ANYONE practicing, yet the bands are doing stuff like this


and this


and this


... out of nowhere. For their last cadence, Morris Brown steps all the way up to A&T's line and -- as we learned before is the most unforgivable breach of drumline etiquette -- plays their drums.


They then step back to their own space and DROP THEIR STICKS.



So A&T busts out a spectacular coup-de-grace and THEY step up to Morris Brown's line and ...


drop their sticks ON THE OTHER BAND'S DRUMS.


Game. Set. Drumline.


A&T wins, of course. Sean and Devon are now best friends forever and the movie ends with a freeze frame of them celebrating, but I was 100% expecting, all the way up to the freeze frame:

Sean: You can be my wingman any time.

Devon: Bullshit. You can be mine.



So that's that! I guess everything works out for everyone! We'll never know, because the movie then goes to like a five-minute end credits that features a bunch of cool band performances. Did Devon ever learn to stop being a butthole? Did he ever gain greater control of his face? Do he and Laila go out for more than six months? Do they get married? Does Sean graduate?

I guess we'll never know until Charles Stone III and Nick Cannon team back up for Drumline 2: Drum Harder. And then I'll review that one for you. At any rate, if you're wondering how to make the perfect sports movie, you should study Drumline. It is the most sports movie that has ever been made. And there are no sports anywhere near it!

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