New movie, Drumline, a star-studded production

by Chris Hollenback

A new motion picture from 20th Century Fox called “Drumline” will feature actor Orlando Jones (7 Up commercials, “Time Machine,” “Evolution”) and music from Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Dallas Austin. The movie is based loosely on Austin’s real-life rise from a snare drummer who couldn’t read music to a producer and songwriter for the likes of Michael Jackson (Too Bad), Madonna (Secret), Boyz II Men (Motownphilly) and TLC (Creep) and movies such as “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Nutty Professor.” It will be released nation-wide just two weeks after the DCI World Championships, on August 23.

The story follows Austin’s character (Nickelodeon’s Nick Cannon), a snare drummer from Harlem who takes a scholarship to attend Atlanta A&T. He’s recruited by the marching band director, played by Jones, and struggles to fit in. There’s also a love interest subplot.

“It was a high school story at first,” Austin said, because that’s when the premise occurred in his real life. “The movie is set in college. There was a love interest in my life like that, but it was different because it was in high school. The girl in the movie is a dancer instead of a bells player.”

Austin, who recently earned another Grammy nomination for his work with R&B artist Blu Cantrell (Hit ‘Em Up Style), is the executive producer of the film. He planned it out so the music the marching bands will be playing in the movie will be pop tunes from major rock artists that are geared to be hits when the film is released.

“The action scenes are competitive marching band scenes,” Austin said. “There are drum majors high-stepping down the field with pyros going off. It’s based on the ‘Battle of the Bands.’ Each drum line trades off playing cadences and licks. It gets heated because they’re face-to-face on the field. They’ll finish licks by stepping over the line between them and holding their sticks close to the other guy’s face, or playing the end of the cadence on the other guy’s drum. Bass drummers are holding their drums over their heads for snare drummers to play on. The moves in there are unbelievable. You know how after the ‘Karate Kid’ everyone wanted to do the moves from the movie? That’s what this will be like.”

“Drumline” producers had help in making the scenes realistic. Don Roberts, real-life director of Southwest DeKalb High School in Georgia, was a technical advisor. His band performed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was the first all-Black high school band in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and also welcomed home the 1995 World Series Champion Atlanta Braves. Around 80 to 90 of Roberts’ 160 students are in the movie.

“They’re very excited,” Roberts said. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime. There’s the movie, then video and DVD. In terms of an honor, it ranks right up there. It has longevity. The Olympics and Macy’s were really nice, but this is something you can show to your kids.”

Roberts said Austin noticed that Southwest DeKalb was a fantastic band, and asked the members to be involved. It’s a tribute to Roberts, who goes the extra mile for the program.

“I like to dare to be different,” Roberts said. “I strive to do things other people wouldn’t think about doing. We took the kids to South Africa. The drive is the kids — you feed off their energy. Once you set a precedent like Macy’s, the Carnival of Flowers, the Olympics, you gotta think out of the box. Every class that comes into the tradition expects the same. They’ll say, ‘let’s go to Australia!'”

At first, the opportunity to be in the movie seemed too good to be true. “I was real cautious at first,” Roberts said. “I was like, ‘yeah, right, a movie.’ But we talked and I could tell it was a serious project.”

Roberts said he saw some raw footage of the shots of the band, and true to any band director or corps instructor, he thought some of the lines could have been just a bit straighter. “But when everyone else saw the footage they went ballistic, it was like a football game. I settled down a bit then.”

Real-life band members from Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, Grambling State University and Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College also play themselves in the movie.

“The kids worked a long time, really hard,” Austin said. He said working with band students is very different from someone like Madonna or Michael Jackson.

“The kids in the bands were excited I was around because a lot of them want a career in the music industry. Some of them look at me as being in the same shoes at one point that they are in now. Some big recording artists are excited to work with you, but it’s a different kind of respect than the kids.”

The marching band action scenes were shot at the Georgia Dome, and Austin convinced the studio to bring in extras for the audience. They didn’t have to work too hard — 40,000 people showed up to play the part of fans in the stadium. Drum corps fans will be happy to note that the audience decides who wins the battle of the bands by applause.

“Everyone wins at the battle of the bands — there are trophies for everyone,” Austin said. “It’s more of a performance thing. But it’s very competitive. It’s usually up to the audience to walk away deciding who was the best.

The whole movie is true to drum corps in terms of the challenge, the lessons learned,” Austin said. “It shows how much hard work goes into these performances.”

Austin takes exception to the common cultural perception that marching in bands and drum corps is just for geeks.

“That’s what this movie is for,” he said. “Everyone thinks it’s so un-cool and so nerdy. I would simply show those people the list of people who started in marching bands and are now pop stars. Wait until you see these guys in this movie. This is like the hip-hop of marching bands. When it comes to football games here, everyone comes to see the bands, and the football game is secondary.

“That perception probably comes from the strict corps style. When I first pitched this to Fox, they said, ‘What’s interesting about a marching band?’ So I went back and brought them a video of the battle of the bands and said ‘You’ve got to see this.’ They watched it and said, ‘Wow!'”