The sheer energy that comes off the screen — whether in the young musicians’ playing or in their belief that President Obama offers hope for real change — is the most striking thing about “Marching Band,” which samples the political attitudes of American youth via two college bands in the run-up to the 2008 election. Otherwise, this first documentary by Gallic vet Claude Miller — co-directed with twentysomething documakers Helena Cotinier and Pierre-Nicolas Durand — offers little beyond platitudes and doesn’t justify its offbeat approach to an already over-covered event. Smallscreen sales beckon.
Miller first became fascinated by the marching-band phenom after watching Michel Gondry’s 2005 New York concert docu, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” but realized he needed the right hook to turn his fascination into a film. “Band” doesn’t make a convincing case that he found it: There’s a disconnect between the plentiful scenes of the students rehearsing and performing (notably at a football game) and the interviews with band members about their opinions on the upcoming election. The question about what makes this musical segment of America’s youth so interesting — beyond their color — as the subject for a docu is never really answered.
By focusing on the mixed U. of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and historically black Virginia State U., in nearby Petersburg, color becomes the major issue rather than the marching-band phenom itself, whose evolution or history is never explained for non-U.S. auds. Students’ views at VSU (founded to give African-Americans a chance at higher education) tend naturally to focus on the fact that Obama is black, though even there, one mature student says he’ll vote for the best presidential candidate, not by color.
However, in general, the most surprising thing is how little difference there is between the opinions of students at both colleges, most of whom are breezy, indifferent or simply unpoliticized on the subject of race. Though all are college students, none offer any more trenchant views than the notion of Obama offering fresh hope for the country’s battered image and a promise of change.
Only for a brief moment, at the hour mark, does the docu look beyond the unfettered optimism at the more frightening possibility of what could happen if Obama isn’t elected, and his chances of escaping an assassin’s bullet in the future.
While Virginia is ostensibly a swing state, the docu almost totally ignores the Republican viewpoint — largely repped by a few street demonstrators warning against a slide into socialism if Obama wins.
With no real political conflict onscreen, the pic largely gets by on its smartly edited musical scenes, which brim with energy, passion and naive optimism. HD lensing by Luis Arteaga Pacheco (a camera assistant on Miller’s “Little Lili”) is excellent, and looks just fine on the bigscreen.