Ah, the High School marching band. Forever the butt of many a joke and background music to listen to while you grab some more nachos or sneak a smoke under the bleachers at halftime. All across this great country of ours, we take the marching band for granted. And ya know, it’s not fair as these kids work hard year round to not only play an instrument but also to march in step and avoid any multitude of chapping and chafing from those cumbersome brasses and woodwinds. Doug Lantz has trained his cameras eye on the Centerville High School marching band from Ohio and documents their “season” in his nice, yet distant and quiescent documentary “From the 50 Yard Line.”
Lantz entrenches himself with the 200 plus member marching band for the entirety of their school year as they try and win the national finals at a huge marching band competition in Indiana. Yet rather than focus on maybe 4-5 students, Lantz kind of does a survey across the program and as a result, I never felt particularly attached to any one person or to the band itself. Sure, I wanted them to succeed but I felt Lantz didn’t really structure the film in a way for the viewer to see enough growth or tribulation so when the big moments of competition come, there was no sense of suspense. Another misstep is when the film takes a strange turn away from Centerville to focus on Fairfax High School in Hollywood as they start a new music program. While Centerville is a well-oiled band machine, Fairfax is a spunky group of stragglers who wear borrowed uniforms from another high school as they march. While the Fairfax High marching band seems like a great story and perhaps a better doc subject, the school’s inclusion just made me feel more detached from the Centerville program.
Yet on a more positive note, I had never before realized just how hard some of these marching bands work. Thinking back to my high school days, it was a miracle if I could get to school on time and buy lunch here are kids who play an instrument, march and do it well. The strongest parts in “From the 50 Yard Line” are when we see just how much planning and practice goes into setting up a routine, practicing it and performing it. The behind-the-scenes peek into the technical side of a marching band is pretty amazing. But as I mentioned, a distinct lack of conflict and attachment to people makes the film feel oddly distant. Obviously the risk you run when making a doc is that you can’t guarantee emotion or tension or even what the end result will be for the subject, and such is likely the case here.
Maybe there just wasn’t any huge leaps of growth. One scene in which the students gather near the end of band camp (yeah, yeah, band camp… get over it) to talk about their feelings feels oddly like a funeral as almost every kid breaks down in tears. But rather than take that scene as an opportunity to get us paired up with a student or two and then find someone to root for (or against), the opportunity and all subsequent ones are squandered and an emotional attachment is never formed that allows the viewer to feel involved. But, if you’re interested in how a marching band comes together or want to reminisce about your glory days in the High School band, “From the 50 Yard Line” will fill that order.