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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison on Tour

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In a famous 1974 essay, Susan Sontag called it "Fascinating Fascism": the Nazi art of Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer, which, according to Sontag, had leaked into such American entertainments as Walt Disney's Fantasia, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here and Stanley Kubrick's 2001. And although Sontag, in my opinion, wasn't entirely clear on what constituted fascist art, she did mention "a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort and the endurance of pain." She also mentioned the "characteristic pageantry," which could take various forms: "the massing of groups of people, the turning of people into things, the multiplication or replication of things and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force." Sounds like the gladiator movies I loved so much as a kid.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it also seems like a pretty good description of your average drum-and-bugle-corps performance--the uniforms, the uniformity, the trumpet blasts that could bring down the walls of Jericho. That thought carried me through Reilly Tillman's documentary film Madison on Tour, which will have a one-night run at the Barrymore Theatre on Sunday. Tillman, who lives in the Twin Cities but has a degree in film from the UW, offers us a behind-the-scenes look at the world-champion Madison Scouts, and it's hard not to be impressed with the amount of work that goes into their programs. Why these guys would be willing to pay a lot of money just to march in the sun and sleep in gyms all summer is one of those questions that you can't answer if you're a skeptic, don't have to answer if you're a true believer. Suffice it to say that drum corps becomes a way of life.

"I grew up raised by my parents...and drum corps," says former drum major Kevin Feeney, who'd literally spent half his life with the Scouts when the documentary was filmed in 1993-94. This is just one of many testimonials that Tillman includes, and I was especially interested in a kid who credits drum corps with having taught him confidence, discipline and a respect for authority and tradition. Do you have to have grown up in the '60s and '70s, as I did, to find that a little bit creepy? Probably so, and my only real criticism of Madison on Tour, which should fit neatly into the Scouts' press packets, is that Tillman seems to shy away from some difficult questions. Why, for instance, are the Scouts--"a very fraternal organization"--praised for their great tradition when that tradition continues to exclude women?

And why is it called the Madison Scouts when only a third of the corps members live in or within two hours of Madison? I don't doubt that the Scouts organization has perfectly fine answers to these questions, I just wish they'd been asked. Perhaps Tillman, who says he drove the "cook truck" during his second year of filming, identifies too strongly with the subject of his documentary. But if I don't seem to identify enough, I should point out that I attended last year's DCI Championships, which were held here in Madison, and that I paid good money to do so. I've liked marching bands for as long as I can remember, but I've always considered them something of a guilty pleasure, as if they were some far-flung branch of the military.

Speaking of pleasure, several people in Madison on Tour attest to the Scouts' ability to have fun, even at the expense of winning, and there's plenty of evidence in the documentary to back up that claim, as when the cymbal line stages a little performance of its own. A not inconsiderable value of organizations like the Madison Scouts is that they keep kids off the streets--except during parades, of course. And if I've opened an enormous can of worms by even using the word "fascist" in this review, it's only because I'm trying to understand the nature of drum and bugle corps' appeal. Is there something pernicious about the emotions they stir in us? Perhaps not, just as there's nothing particularly pernicious about, say, the Rockettes--uniforms, uniformity and leg kicks that could bring down the walls of Jericho. Drum corps may not be fascist at all, but they're certainly more fascinating than this documentary lets on.

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