Review by Sarah Williams
A vérité-style documentary showing the formation of community through music, River City Drumbeat is a finely crafted portrait of how art can uplift us when the world won't. The story of the River City Drum Corps in Louisville, Kentucky, follows Edward "Nardie" White, and his assistant, Albert Shumake, a former member of the corps, and the music program they develop for at-risk elementary schoolers. We not only see what these kids go through in a city that tells them not to aspire to anything, but we see the two men's own struggles, and how the community they foster helps them too. It’s about the connection to and sharing of culture, and how art persists even when it is not invited in.
Using the music of its subjects for a rhythm, the constant drumming, growing more skilled as the young musicians thrive. It’s not about skill though, it’s about community, one that fosters talent and gives the young people a place to grow at something. The persistent drumbeat helps the pacing quite a bit, where the film slows there’s the music that keeps it from dragging too much.
The lack of talking head interviews keep the film from feeling blandly educational. Blending the stories of this community, including the escape from the cycle that is poverty, some mentions of family death (the murder of White’s granddaughter and his wife’s cancer) that may be upsetting for some viewers, and a discussion of racism, language, and bias from the education system itself, smoothly into the rest of the footage to make this a story of triumph, not suffering. It is able to tackle these struggles, many of which are systematic, in a way that shows that joy can be found, that people can work together, and make it past this, by showing the light instead of dwelling upon these tougher parts of life.
Overall, River City Drumbeat’s final product is a heartfelt, uplifting story about the power of community over prejudice. What it lacks in originality of craft, it makes up for in heart. It’s a powerful, compact story of triumph, and a love of the arts, and a testament to teamwork that makes it a great film to show mature kids. While showing one school in the south, it provides a leading example for what can be done to uplift young people by giving them an outlet for their energy, something to look forward to, and someone who believes in them having something to aspire to.
River City Drumbeat is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.