Shrewdly positioned by Fox to strut its stuff as a high-stepping sleeper during the holiday season, "Drumline" is a formulaic crowdpleaser set in the competitive world of university marching bands at predominantly black universities. Brimming with heart and humor, slickly packaged comedy-drama should register strong crossover biz.

Shrewdly positioned by Fox to strut its stuff as a high-stepping sleeper during the holiday season, “Drumline” is a formulaic crowdpleaser set in the competitive world of university marching bands at predominantly black universities. Brimming with heart and humor, slickly packaged comedy-drama should register strong crossover biz in theatrical showcases, then profitably encore as homevid product.

Reportedly based in part on high school band experiences of music producer-songwriter Dallas Austin, pic’s executive producer, “Drumline” cleverly reconfigures cliches usually employed in military-training dramas — think “Top Gun” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” — while charting the slow-but-steady maturing of a raw, cocksure talent.

Harlem-born hip-hop drummer Devon Miles (Nick Cannon) earns a full music scholarship to Atlanta A&T U. and arrives on campus convinced of his superstar potential. His self-assurance dims only slightly as he realizes that, like anyone else in the A&T lineup, he’ll have to endure a grueling training-and-hazing regimen not unlike a Marine boot camp. Indeed, Devon is so unshakably confident, if not downright arrogant, he goes out of his way to antagonize the very person who’s most capable of making his life miserable — senior class drumline leader Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts).

Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), A&T’s demanding and dedicated band director, has little patience for attention-hogging prima donnas (“One band, one sound!” is his motto) and even less regard for rap or hip-hop. He admits his musical tastes are old-school — more Earth Wind and Fire, less Snoop Dogg — and insists showmanship must never obscure musicianship. Trouble is, Lee’s traditionalism has begun to annoy A&T’s image-conscious president Wagner (Afem Omilami), who’d like to see a bit more showmanship during halftime shows. When Devon calls attention to himself during a spirited solo turn, Wagner is pleased; Lee isn’t.

Scriptwriters Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps intro character-changing conflict when Devon is unmasked — thanks to Sean’s maneuvering — as musically illiterate and kicked off the band until he learns how to read notes. The banishment places A&T at a disadvantage as it prepares for a nationally telecast college band competition, and Devon is sorely tempted to transfer to a rival college, where the flamboyant band director (J. Anthony Brown) is less scrupulous about musicianship or good-sportsmanship.

Under smooth direction of Charles Stone III (helmer of recent, much grittier “Paid in Full”), Cannon — popular star of his own self-titled Nickelodeon cable-TV series — makes a strong impression in his first pic lead. Character could have come across as an off-putting egotist, but young actor effectively counterbalances cockiness with charm and vulnerability. He’s particularly engaging during scenes opposite Zoe Saldana, who makes the most of her role as mandatory romantic interest.

Orlando Jones, usually cast in broadly comic parts, gets a welcome chance to expand his range with an effortlessly authoritative perf as the firm but fair band director. A few other supporting characters — including an “affirmative action” white drummer (actor GQ) and a femme novice (Candace Carey) who’s teasingly dubbed “G.I. Jane” during band boot camp — are intriguing but underdeveloped.

Tech values are aces across the board, and the soundtrack — featuring a nice mix of traditional and contempo tunes — should spawn peppy CD sales. Scenes set on fictional A&T campus were shot on Georgia locations, at Clark Atlanta U. and Morris Brown College.

Drumline

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Wendy Finerman production. Produced by Finerman, Timothy M. Bourne, Jody Gerson. Executive producers, Dallas Austin, Greg Mooradian. Directed by Charles Stone III. Screenplay, Tina Gordon Chism, Shawn Schepps, based on a story by Schepps.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color), Shane Hurlbut; editors, Bill Pankow, Patricia Bowers; music, John Powell; executive music producer, Dallas Austin; production designers, Charles C. Bennett; art director, Nicholas Scott; set decorator, Amy McGary; costume designer, Salvador Perez; sound (Dolby DTS), Jim Hawkins; assistant director, Doug Torres; casting, Aleta Chappelle. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace, Houston, Nov. 20, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Devon Miles - Nick Cannon Laila - Zoe Saldana Dr. Lee - Orlando Jones Sean Taylor - Leonard Roberts Jayson - GQ Ernest - Jason Weaver Charles - Earl C. Poitier Diedre - Candace Carey Big Rob - Shay Rountree Trey - Miguel A. Gaetan Mr. Wade - J. Anthony Brown President Wagner - Afem Omilami
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more