Dallas Austin TV show marches to band's beat
Southwest DeKalb High featured in four-part series
By RODNEY HO
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 11/27/2007
The football team had long gone home, the temperature dipped below 50 and darkness enveloped the practice field, save for a lone floodlight far up a hill.
But that didn't stop 260 Southwest DeKalb High School Marching Panthers earlier this month from prepping for a competition the next day, working choreography and playing the Roberta Flack classic "The Closer I Get to You" over and over again.
Three booster club parents pulled up their
vehicles to shine headlights onto the field, feeding enough light to
illuminate the formations and the glistening brass instruments but not
the students' faces.
Stone-faced band director James Seda, standing atop a makeshift elevated platform, stopped for a moment to give the group a pep talk. "Your standards are higher," he said through a megaphone. "They grade you on a higher standard. You have to understand that about Southwest DeKalb."
That gold standard is why hip-hop mogul Dallas Austin chose to document the band's 2007 fall season for Peachtree TV's first original series "Drumroll: SWD," which debuts Tuesday night and will air in hour-long segments over four consecutive weeks. (Peachtree TV, a Turner Broadcasting cable channel that launched in October, airs only in metro Atlanta.)
Over the past few months, Austin's crew shot more than 400 hours of tape, chronicling the dedication and sacrifice involved in creating one of the nation's best marching bands, an ensemble that has performed at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Carnival of Flowers in Nice, France, and the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Austin said he was inspired by MTV's popular series "Two-a-Days," which followed a top-ranked Hoover, Ala., football team. But at Southwest DeKalb, the band gets more attention than the football team.
"It's going to hit home for a lot of people how the program functions on a day-to-day basis," said Don P. Roberts, the instrumental music coordinator for DeKalb schools who helped build the Southwest DeKalb band program in the 1990s. "You see the challenges the kids face beyond the music, their home lives, the good things, the bad things. For a lot of these kids, band is therapy. It's the best medicine and motivation they can have."
Senior Tanesha Smith, who has a disabled brother and juggles her schedule between dancing for the band and wrestling, said she grew "used to the cameras in my face all the time" and considers the exposure good prep work for a future career in entertainment.
"This is our home," said Wayne Westley, a senior and head drum major, the top student position in the band. "We're here more than our own houses. We can't wait to see this on TV."
Austin, who was a drummer in his high school band, created the surprise big-screen hit "Drumline" starring Nick Cannon in 2002 and now the reality show. (Though "Drumline" was set at a fictional Atlanta college, he used the Southwest DeKalb band for the field shots.)
In an unusual concession, Austin gave DeKalb County Schools final say on the edits. Roberts said the school has only made modest changes such as dropping some trash-talking comments made by Southwest DeKalb students against other DeKalb school bands in the first episode.
Parents did complain about an early teaser trailer that showed "Dancing Diva" Danielle Budram kissing her boyfriend Manly Waller Jr., son of Olympic medalist Gwen Torrence. "Someone said we were half naked," Budram said. "I didn't think it was bad at all."
Budram said she expects "Drumroll" to be more realistic than MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," which documents over-the-top 16th birthday parties. She was the best friend of the young woman featured on the show. "That was kind of fake," she said. "They gave us lines to say. They put stuff in out of order in which they were said."
Austin said he "self-censored" himself. "The whole difference of this show is it's something positive," he said. "I'd hate to have a reality show with children in them that exposes them in a way that's embarrassing even the slightest bit."
Still, Roberts said it's not a pure propaganda piece for DeKalb public schools.
"There is going to be drama and conflict," Roberts said. "But the conflict is not sex and drugs."
The first episode previewed by the AJC features no strife at all between students or adults as it shows the band rehearsing and performing at a pep rally, the season's first football game and a countywide "Battle of the Bands."
Though the focus is on the what happens on the field, the cameras capture students at their homes, a local wings place and a nail salon. The only personal story during the first hour is between two students who bond over the fact they have special needs siblings.