A made-for-television sequel to a theatrically released movie will never live up to the original, even if the original is mostly just about Nick Cannon drumming away his anger and father issues. The 2002 movie Drumline may not be the best movie ever made (though if I had my way, it would have a Criterion Collection release with no fewer than six separate commentary tracks, a beat-by-beat breakdown of the final drum battle, and a special-edition version of the movie that only includes the drum scenes), but it is still a fun, energetic, and basically enjoyable two hours. VH1’s Drumline: A New Beat (get it?) tries to match this by retelling much of the same story with a few percussion interjections.
There was no reason for a Drumline sequel to get made 12 years after the original, except for the fact that Nick Cannon (OK, and I) wanted it to happen. What Nick Cannon wants, Nick Cannon gets. He is a producer on the sequel and, late in the movie, reprises his role as Devon Miles (who acts something of a deus ex machina in this sequel, as much as a television movie about drumming can have a deus ex machina). Drumline: A New Beat (kudos if you’re able to read that subtitle not in the cadence of Taylor Swift faux-rapping “This. Sick. Beat.”) follows much of the same formula as the original. It focuses on college freshman Dani (Alexandra Shipp, who will be the subject of much Internet vitriol when she portrays Aaliyah in Lifetime’s original movie next month), a girl who has the audacity to think she should be allowed to drum!
Fortunately, for much of the first half of the movie, A New Beat isn’t too preoccupied with Dani’s gender. Unfortunately, it does open with a lame setup involving Dani’s conflict with her well-off and well-to-do parents, who would much rather she go to Spelman or Harvard to become a doctor and maintain the family’s classy reputation than — gasp! — go to a historically black college/university (HBCU), the fictional Atlanta A&T University and — double gasp! — play drums. They even go so far as to try and bribe her with a new car to get her to suddenly switch colleges last minute but this just leads to her being cut off from her parents financially. To their credit, her parents never tell her that she shouldn’t be a drummer because she’s a woman. Instead, they remind her that “there are no drumlines in the real world.”
What made Drumline so engaging was that Devon Miles was coming from a place of desperation, a shitty Harlem neighborhood where a full scholarship to drum was his only out, where he was dealing with poverty and anger and an estranged father. Dani, however, is dealing with two parents who give her a car! And when she’s cut off, her big problems involve a late phone bill. A New Beat is more concerned with the glitz — Devon is now super-famous, a Puff Daddy-esque character with songs all over the radio, who is driven onto the field by a chauffeur in a fancy car. Dani may not have the same stakes or desperation that Devon had, but she definitely has the determination and the talent — and faces her own unique obstacles.
A New Beat later becomes focused on the gender politics of a drumline, whatever those are. Dani hopes to become the first female section leader but is blocked from making P1 because, as one rival puts it, “bitches” shouldn’t be on the line. There is a lot of odd stuff like that; when Dani angrily tries to prove herself on the field, one of the guys questions if she’s on her period. It’s pretty awful! To make matters worse, she’s put into competition with her love interest Jayven (Jordan Calloway, who acts solely by talking out of the side of his mouth). Will she choose love or drums? Can she have it all?
There are multiple love stories throughout A New Beat, including the obvious residual attraction between Drumline originals Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts) and Dr. Nia Phillips (LeToya Luckett), two other freshmen members of the drumline, and a plot between an openly gay member of the drumline and a closeted football player (not nearly enough time is devoted to this). All of which takes away from the main storyline in A New Beat because it’s a hell of a lot for a TV movie to juggle.
Still, A New Beat has plenty of necessary energy behind it that helps to push things forward even when it’s utterly predictable, overblown with side plots (drugs, of course), and plain “twists” about Dani’s uncertain future. Let’s be honest: The narrative in both Drumline and its sequel are second to the cool percussion performances and drum-offs that are sporadically featured. They are spectacular, showcasing some very real talent, and wonderfully blend together the highly technical drumline skills with popular hip-hop songs.
Maybe A New Beat fails to match the original, but it gets points for trying its hardest, for putting a woman at its center, and for bringing even more attention to the world of HBCUs and their drumlines — one of Cannon’s intentions with the sequel. And, yeah, the final drum battle is really awesome, and that’s what we’re all here for.