The film received generally positive reviews, with most critics praising the energy of the film, as well as the musical talents of the bands. It was a modest box office success, earning over $56 million in the U.S., and almost $1.2 million in foreign markets. A television sequel, Drumline: A New Beat premiered on VH1 on October 27, 2014.
The film centers on Devon Miles (Cannon), a teen who has just graduated from a high school in New York City. Upon graduating, Devon heads to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the fictitious Atlanta A&T University (based on North Carolina A&T), a historically black college that takes enormous pride in its marching band. Devon was personally invited to attend on full scholarship by Dr. James Lee (Jones), head of the band, for his prodigious talents. The A&T band separates itself from its competitors by requiring all members to read music, by focusing on various styles of music rather than what music is currently popular on the radio, and dedication to the teamwork emphasized "one band, one sound" concept. The band has a preseason that is similar to an athletic team's induction in that it is very physically and mentally difficult. It challenges all recruits to push themselves past what they previously thought were their limits. At the end of preseason, the musicians audition for spots on the field, and Devon is the only freshman to make P1, the highest level player. While going through his rigorous process, Devon also finds time to romance an upperclassman dancer, Laila (Saldana).
College life starts well for Devon, as he has the girl and a spot on the field. Things begin to turn sour when Sean (Roberts), Devon's percussion leader, begins to grow weary of Devon's cocky attitude. Sean later challenges Devon to take a solo in his first game, believing the freshman will panic and be embarrassed in front of everyone. He is shocked when Devon takes the solo and is subsequently humiliated. This sets up some tension in the drumline which is exacerbated when Dr. Lee is told by President Wagner (Afuma Dkembie ), the school's president, to change his focus from music to entertainment or "There won't be a band program next year". Lee does not want to give Devon more playing time because he feels Devon's attitude and respect are lacking. The situation further deteriorates when it is revealed that Devon cannot read music. Devon is demoted to P4 by Dr. Lee until he learns, then later put back on P1 when Wagner pressures Dr. Lee to do so. The final straw comes at A&T's homecoming, when Devon incites a melee with the visiting band by leading his fellows in using their sticks to play on the visiting line's drums (a serious insult in drumline mythos).The melee results in the destruction of $99,000 worth of band equipment and 17 arrests. The band is angry with Devon for his showboating and shun him. Devon runs to Dr.Lee telling him that his band mates are shunning him, but he is eventually kicked out of the band by Dr. Lee.The fight also harms his relationship with Laila as she is embarrassed to introduce him to her parents, who attended the game and thought of Devon as a hoodlum.
Acting as if he is not bothered by Dr. Lee exiling him, Devon contacts A&T's rival school Morris Brown College, to discuss playing for their marching band next season. Mr. Wade, Brown's band leader, says that Devon does not need to know how to read music and will likely get a full scholarship and a good position on the drumline. When Wade wants to know what Dr. Lee is planning for the BET Big Southern Classic (a large competition of college bands), Devon realizes that his heart and honor are still with the A&T band. He rejects the scholarship offer from the rival band and returns to A&T. Though Devon is still not playing for the band, he cannot give up his drumming. He is sent cassette tapes from his estranged father and gets some ideas for new drum arrangements. He and Sean have a final confrontation, with Sean telling Devon that he is A&T's best drummer but that the band is bigger than just one person; this clears the air and they begin to work together. The two present their idea for an entrance cadence to Dr. Lee who decides they will be used during the Classic. Devon helps the drumline prepare and patches up his relationship with Laila. Lee also tells Devon that he can guarantee him a full return to the band next year.
At the Classic, the bands are shown performing a mixture of popular songs. Morris Brown's band even gets rapper Petey Pablo to perform during their routine. A&T is not fazed by this and performs their mix of retro and current sounds. A tie results and the Morris Brown and A&T drumlines face off. Dr. Lee tells Devon he can play for this face-off, showing his faith in Devon's improved character and in thanks for all the hard work he has done in getting the band ready for the Classic. Morris Brown goes first and A&T responds. Morris Brown's second cadence includes their snares moving forward and playing on the A&T drums (the same move that incited the fight at A&T's homecoming game, which resulted in Devon's expulsion from the band), then throwing down their sticks. The A&T line manages to hold their composure in the face of the insult. They play their cadence and in the middle throw down their drumsticks, mimicking the Morris Brown actions, but then the entire line pulls out another set of sticks and continues playing. They end their routine in the faces of the Morris Brown drumline, but instead of playing on their drums, the line all drop their sticks onto the other drumline's drums. The judges award the win to A&T.
The film was released on VHS and in fullscreen and widescreen editions on DVD April 15, 2003. DVD features include a full-length director's commentary, ten deleted scenes with commentary, a thirty-minute "Making of..." special, and music videos for the singles "I Want A Girl Like You" by Joe and "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)" by JC Chasez from the film's soundtrack. A "special edition" DVD version of the film was later released on January 29, 2008. The film was released in the Blu-ray format on January 27, 2009.
The film was given 3½ stars at Allmovie, where reviewer Josh Ralske gave positive note to the performances of the main cast and Stone's direction but still called the plot "formulaic." At Metacritic, the film has averaged a 63 out of 100 rating from critics, based on 28 reviews. The film aggregater website Rotten Tomatoes has an 82% "fresh" rating. It is currently tied for the #98 spot on the site's list of 100 Best Films of 2002. At Yahoo! Movies, the film has been given a B average based on 14 reviews from critics, and a B- by over 30,000 users.
Natasha Grant at BlackFilm.com called the movie "irresistible," "wonderfully crafted," and "fascinating." For the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, giving the film credit as being "entertaining" and "admirable." At the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan believed the film to be entertaining, although he states that the plot is "way-familiar." Writing for The New York Times, A. O. Scott, while feeling the movie had a "skimpy, hectic plot," still believed the film to be "bouncy, boisterous and charming," and the play of the marching bands to be "downright thrilling." Mike Clark at USA Today awarded the film two and a half of four stars, feeling the film to be conventional but competent, and giving particular positive note to J. Anthony Brown, Orlando Jones, and Leonard Roberts performances. One of the film's negative reviews came courtesy of David Levine at FilmCritic.com. Giving the film 2.5 out of 5 stars, Levine called the screenplay "standard formula" and "predictable," and went on to say that it was unfunny as well as uninspiring. He did however say he was impressed by the precision and artistry of the marching band.
The film's soundtrack was also executive produced by Dallas Austin. Released on December 10, 2002 by Jive Records, it reached the number 61 spot on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, number 10 on the Top Soundtracks list, and peaked at 133 on The Billboard 200 in 2003. The tracks "I Want a Girl Like You," "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)," and "Club Banger" were all released as singles, with JC Chasez' "Blowin' Me Up..." obtaining the highest level of success, reaching the number 24 spot on the Canadian Singles Chart, number 17 on the Top 40 Tracks chart, and number 14 on the Top 40 Mainstream chart.
(*): Indicates songs were released as singles