Much to its credit, Drumline introduces us to a fresh world--the society of African-American collegiate marching bands--with considerable zest and style. Although restricted to 20 minutes during college football halftimes, the band offers syncopated musicians, dancing cheerleaders and drum majors, with a dash of hip-hop and street dancing thrown in for good measure. The movement is as exciting as the music. All in all, show-style bands offer quite a spectacle, and the musical energy often rises to nuclear dimensions.

Not only has director Charles (the "Whassuup?!" Budweiser spots) Stone III assembled considerable talent for the bands, his entire cast is sympathetic enough to more than carry this sometimes shopworn tale of a rebel learning to damp down his ego for the good of the team. In Drumline, we follow hot hip-hop drummer Devon Miles (Nick Cannon) from a Harlem high-school graduation to Atlanta A&T, where he has received a full scholarship. He finds himself in a kind of marching band boot camp--all designed to inculcate the notion of "one band, one sound." Improbably, the university band director, Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones), has no idea that the brilliant but undisciplined Miles cannot read music. But senior-class band member Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts), who is jealous of Miles' skill, figures it out and deliberately exposes Miles' fatal inability to Dr. Lee. The question then becomes: Will Miles be kicked out of the band and out of school--or will Dr. Lee bend a few rules to improve his band's chances of winning the Big Southern Classic, where the area's best bands compete on national television for a whopping jackpot?

Tossed into the mix is a predictable love story between Miles and foxy upperclassman Laila (Zoe Saldana). Fortunately, there is real chemistry between the two, almost enough to make the romance sizzle, and both Cannon and Saldana are actors of considerable warmth and charm.

Choreographers Glenda Morton and Shapiro Hardeman consistently discover new ways to add life and sparkle to the traditional marching band, and the scenes in which percussion lines challenge each other like medieval knights have the sinister impact of gang confrontations without the death count. More than compensating for the formula script are Drumline's tuneful glory and driving rhythms, along with a pulsating vitality that never flags.

--Bruce Feld