What a good music teacher can do: River City Drumbeat

B+ Documentary
Directed by Marlon Johnson​

Yes, this is another inspiring music documentary, but that’s not a bad thing. River City Drumbeat is about African American children getting a leg up in life thanks to a youth drum team. And no, they’re not all expected to have great careers as percussionists. But by working in a team, and by learning responsibility (they all must get good grades), hopefully they’ll get into college and do well in life.

But these kids are top-notch musicians – at least when working as a team. The concert scenes are beautiful and thrilling. If director Marlon Johnson simply made a concert movie, it would have been a much more entertaining movie. But it wouldn’t have introduced these special people to us.

The star of this documentary is Ed “Nardie” White – a widower and senior citizen with thin dreadlocks – and he has been running the River City Drum Corp (RCDC) for decades. This is more than a hobby, but a deep calling. He wants his charges to stay on the straight and narrow path and feels this is the way to keep them there. And judging from what the filmmakers choose to show us, the kids mostly stick to it.

This is all happening in Louisville, Kentucky, and almost everyone we see is Black. Early on, we learn that there are safe blocks and unsafe blocks. Most of the film focuses on the safe ones, but we get a whiff of the danger nearby. White lost a granddaughter to gang violence.

The documentary covers a period of transition for the RCDC. White is stepping down at the age of 65. A former member of the Corp, Albert Shumake, is taking over the organization. It’s not going to be easy. He’s a new father himself and is caring for a sick mother. White doesn’t seem worried about the change; he knows that with Shumake, the group will be in good hands.

We get to know a bit about a few of these people. White tells us how his wife struggled with cancer for five years. A few of the young musicians talk about their hopes and worries. It’s not easy. This is still, after all, a society designed for the comfort and safety of white people.

Speaking of white people, you see very few of them in the film – usually in crowds.

For the most part, the film looks like every other documentary shot in a not-very-wealthy part of an American city. But Johnson and cinematographer Juan Carlos Castañeda seem overexcited about drones. The camera often looks down from a great distance without showing anything particularly interesting.

River City Drumbeat will be available Friday to stream through the Roxie Theater‘s website.