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Saturday, November 7, 2015

A New Beat

So it's a year later - I told you that might happen - but I've finally seen Drumline: A New Beat. Previously stymied by a lack of cable, it became available on Netflix recently and I watched it earlier this week.

I'll start with what you want to know. I liked it. In fact, as I continue to think about it, I liked it quite a bit. I had set my sights pretty low for the made-for-TV installment, so low expectations may play a role, but for what it was, it was enjoyable.

The film starts, as the first one did, with the protagonist heading off to college. Instead of Devon from Brooklyn, it's Dani from Westchester, also a snare drummer, setting off on her own at Atlanta A&T without the support of her well-off parents, who would rather she attend Spelman. Dani's cousin is already captain of the drumline at A&T. Meanwhile, A&T alumnus (now Dr.) Sean Taylor returns to direct the band, due in no small part to the influence of his old college flame and "Dean of the Students" (that was actually said) Dr. Nia Phillips. Sean was hired on to turn the band around, as they hadn't won the Southern Jamboree Classic in six years, and were getting routinely spanked by this movie's purple-clad nemesis, Southern State. Southern State is under the direction of Sean's brother, Kevin, whose backstory is that he preceded Sean in The Senate (A&T's drumline) but Sean stepped on his toes by becoming captain in his junior year. Oh, and Kevin happens to be Nia's ex-husband.

In considering A New Beat, it's worth noting that I'm not comparing it to Drumline, but looking at it as a distinct work. Other than its made-for-TV status and all that may come with that, it has a few other things that set it apart: First, while Drumline saw itself as a blockbuster, A New Beat picks a lane - urban young adult - and stays in it. In TV fashion, A New Beat bounces back and forth between multiple, often minimally developed themes: Dani's family dynamic, both with her parents and cousin; her acceptance on The Senate as a female snare drummer; alcohol and drug use; a gay character on the drumline and his relationship-not-relationship with a closeted football player; and multiple other romance angles, including Dani and fellow drummer Jayven, Sean and Nia, and Josh (the token white kid) and Tasha (a cymbalist who's lowkey wicked smart).

To the band-as-celebrity angle, we hear the familiar voice of Big Tigger (formerly of BET and DC's WPGC; now in Atlanta on WVEE) on what seems to be a bandcentric gossip site, The 5th Quarter (a take of from, if not a nod to, the actual 5th Quarter, founded by friend of the program Christy) Tig also hosts the Southern Jamboree Classic with Devon Miles, now a big time entertainment mogul (so, Nick Cannon playing his idealized self?) who Sean calls upon when times get tough and members of the band start to, well, remind him of Devon. The film uses a few cool devices throughout: A text bubble pop-up when that's how characters are communicating (VH1 piloted this technology long ago as Pop Up Video) and a drum cam that gave us a view from inside the drum (never mind that they were using Remo ebony batter heads...).

A few notes for those looking for connections to the original: On an TV budget, it's understandably difficult to sell the bands as top tier; in fact, the multiple storylines made it clear that the believability of the bands in the movie as high quality bands was secondary to telling the stories with bands as the backdrop. The production was such that even when they took the field, the sound was clearly studio. No Greek-letter organization plays as significant a role as KKPsi or Laila's Sigma Phi Alpha did in the original; a Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia crest is visible in the A&T band room, and there's a brief shot of a sorority woman clad in pink and green with letters that are clearly not Alpha Kappa Alpha. But if you're a fan of the original, there's something that feels right about being back on A&T's campus, back in their band room, hearing A&T's field entrance cadence, and seeing Sean and Devon on the screen together once more. Even Dani's stance and smirk, clearly patterned after Devon Miles, bring a slice of nostalgia.

Drumline: A New Beat isn't bringing home any major awards, and it won't have nearly the impact its predecessor did, but it's certainly well worth the hour and 45 minute runtime.
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