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'Ballou' Hits Real-Life Chords

Gifted musicians from a D.C. high school rise above daunting obstacles in the documentary
Gifted musicians from a D.C. high school rise above daunting obstacles in the documentary "Ballou." (Garden Thieves Pictures)

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Friday, June 13, 2008

When the life of the American Teenager is being routinely refracted -- and distorted -- through everything from "Gossip Girl" to the latest appalling YouTube video, "Ballou" comes as an exuberant, inspired corrective. Michael Patrei's lively and affecting documentary follows the marching band of Ballou High School in Southeast Washington, where gifted young musicians and their dedicated mentors overcome the crime, poverty and institutional dysfunction that constantly threatens to engulf them.

Hewing to a formula made famous by "Spellbound" and "Mad Hot Ballroom," "Ballou" chronicles a year in the life of the band as it prepares for a national competition in Birmingham, Ala. Along the way they cope with dropouts, family problems and internal conflicts, which Patrei records with dispassionate, sometimes perfunctory swiftness.

Talking-head testimonials from the likes of Marion Barry and Jesse Jackson only briefly pull focus from "Ballou's" real stars, including a charismatic sousaphone player who runs for band president, an equally dynamic "flag girl" leader and the band's director, Darrell Watson, whose compassionate leadership gives his young charges the priceless gift of discipline, focus and unbridled joy. "Everybody touch somebody," he says as he opens the band prayer. He does. They do. Amen.

-- Ann Hornaday

Ballou Unrated, 90 minutes Contains nothing objectionable. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Ballou Unrated, 90 minutes Contains nothing objectionable. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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