‘River City Drumbeat’ shows the positive impact of music on at-risk youth

Emily is one of the teens featured in the documentary “River City Drumbeat.” Photo: Owsley Brown

Music is much more than a song or a symphony, more than the instruments it is played on and bigger than the humans that create it or listen to it. Music has defined whole civilizations.

As River City Drum Corps Director Albert Shumake puts it, music is the “heartbeat” that connects us all.

The River City Drum Corps has been an important institution in Louisville, Ky., for more than a quarter of a century, not only getting at-risk children as young as 5 involved in music but also helping to provide a social structure and opportunity that leads to college and careers. The narrative thread of the new documentary “River City Drumbeat” may be the delicate transition as co-founder Edward “Nardie” White hands off the baton to former Drum Corps member Shumake, but the heartbeat of the film is the kids who grow before our eyes.

Music is also the siren call of co-directors Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté, two veteran filmmakers who were so compelled to tell the River City Drum Corps story that they traveled a long way to do it; Johnson from Miami, where he was born and raised, and Flatté from her home in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood.

“River City Drumbeat” directors Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson have made several music-themed documentaries. Photo: Owsley Brown

“We have made a lot of films about music and community and how important it is, and how it’s something that connects all of us,” said Flatté of the film, which streams exclusively through the Roxie Theater’s virtual cinema beginning Friday, Aug. 7. “The first time I saw the Drum Corps was at a family night. Just seeing the community and the dedication, it was very powerful and we knew immediately that this story needed to be heard.”

Notice that Flatté said the story needed to be heard, not told. Johnson and Flatté have both made documentaries involving music. For Flatté in particular it has been a specialty, and so too for San Francisco producer Owsley Brown.

Brown, a Louisville native, works with Flatté regularly (most recently on a web series about the Louisville Orchestra) and conceived of the River City documentary. They brought in Johnson, whom Flatté had met on a project in Miami.

But this documentary is about more than music. As filming progressed, Johnson and Flatté focused on three drummers: Imani, Jailen and Emily. Through their involvement with River City Drum Corps, they learn about not only music and art, but also their own heritage. Part of White’s original mission was to build a sense of community and purpose in an economically challenged, mostly Black neighborhood in west Louisville.

“I’m a kid who was brought up and saved by arts programming,” Johnson said. “My neighborhood was similar to the neighborhood that Ed and Albert had grown up in. We got an opportunity to share our life experiences, as both being Black in America and as being artists in America. And Black male artists in America.”

The River City Drum Corps teaches young people about music, art and their heritage. Photo: Owsley Brown

Flatté noted that many of the children in drum corps — including Imani, Jailen and Emily — have parents who are deeply involved in their lives, and that she and Johnson wanted to reflect that in “River City Drumbeat.”

“Seeing the parents raising their kids in west Louisville and what that entails was inspiring,” said Flatté, who has two children of her own (Johnson has four children; all are sheltering in place during the pandemic with their respective parents). “Both Marlon and I understand how many people it takes to raise a child. It’s so much more than just the parents. And that’s so evident in terms of the Drum Corps.

“The community is so important. The teachers are so important. And I think everybody’s understanding that at a very deep level right now.”

The River City Drum Corps is also helping its members go to college. The organization has working relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, and many of the children receive band scholarships. Jailen, who was the class president at his high school, is now studying broadcast journalism at Tennessee State University.

“Part of my own experiences is that kids who grow up in communities like this have a very narrow view of the world,” Johnson said. “When you are exposed to arts, it broadens that view all of a sudden and it’s an awakening of sorts. That is very powerful.”

“River City Drumbeat” (Not rated) available for streaming beginning Friday, Aug. 7, through the Roxie Theater’s virtual cinema. $12.  www.roxie.com

‘River City Drumbeat’ shows the positive impact of music on at-risk youth