‘River City Drumbeat’ struggles to keep its rhythm

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

In many ways, “River City Drumbeat” likens the craft of documentary to that of drumming. Though interview scraps and b-roll begin as independent sounds, they’re tightly assembled to create a cohesive whole. There’s a rhythm to a documentary’s formation, and quality comes from both repetition of familiar motifs and variance, adhering to a consistent pace and style. Just as one instrument in a drumbeat can change the feel of a piece, the documentary demonstrates how incorporating diverse perspectives can radically shape how it presents its subject matter.

Directed by Emmy Award-winning documentarian Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté, “River City Drumbeat” centers on the River City Drum Corps, a Louisville percussion conservatory and youth program, and the organization’s creator, Edward “Nardie” White. On his way to retirement, White nominates Albert Shumake, a founding member of the corps, as his successor; the film thus follows the transition of power between these two, as White mentors Shumake to run the corps and give back to the local community.  

“River City Drumbeat” feels as if it’s playing two different rhythms at once. On one hand, it’s a music documentary: The titular drum corps performs with a contagious energy, and its performance sequences are high-octane flourishes that signal the technical skill of both the drummers and filmmakers. But at the same time, it’s a film about tradition: a multigenerational backbeat that closely examines generations of the drum corps’ leadership and community.

It’s a compelling formula, and it is certainly crafted with a deep sense of respect for its leads. Though it focuses on the relationship between White and Shumake, the documentary also intimately explores a wide cast of musicians, students and neighborhood leaders, all of whom contribute greatly to the film’s themes. At its best, “Drumbeat” is a touching exploration of family and generational trauma, capturing passion and empathy in these community portraits. 

It’s especially effective at harboring this emotion in its first half, thanks to performance sequences that keep the film’s pacing up. “Drumbeat” experiments with camera direction and framing here, turning stacks of homemade drums and bird’s-eye view shots into expressive, abstract geometry. The dynamic motion of cymbals crashing and uniformed drummers marching also lends a visual brevity to these sequences, complimenting the corps’ irresistibly catchy beats. Other scenes, focusing on the organization’s spiritual and self-affirming teaching process, capture the joy that the corps brings to its youngest and oldest members alike.

Once this visual and melodic candy is familiar, however, it becomes clear that the film suffers from a chronic lack of direction. It maintains its passion and honesty — the relationship between Shumake and White remains especially compelling — but the film struggles to find a solid plot within its story. While “River City Drumbeat” certainly leans more toward a slice-of-life narrative than a plot-centric one, it falters in the latter half to keep its audience engaged. This is most exemplified in the last half-hour: Though the developments in these final sequences feel emotionally profound and cathartic, it simply takes too long to reach this conclusion. At its worst, “Drumbeat” drags well behind its established tempo.

It would be unfair, however, to suggest that the film could stand to lose 20 or so minutes — to do so would likely mean painting a less complete picture of this community. But at the same time, it’s hard to deny that the film loses its momentum. Perhaps the documentary might’ve avoided this problem if it didn’t so quickly deplete its most interesting visual and rhythmic tricks, but the film inevitably leaves itself with nothing novel to maintain this energy. 

For what it’s worth, this pacing could be seen as intentional. “River City Drumbeat” asks for patience from its audience and rewards those who listen with a deeply human exploration of communal solidarity. But even with this intention in mind, it’s hard not to feel like the documentary could’ve stuck a better balance between its two rhythms. The issue doesn’t discredit the film’s empathy, but it certainly is enough to make “River City Drumbeat” feel ironically out of sync.

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact them at [email protected]. Tweet them at @ogrimes5.