They arrived at Eastgate Cinema on a bitterly cold February night to view the Madison premiere of Scouts Honor: Inside A Marching Brotherhood, a gritty and moving documentary that chronicles the 2012 season of the Madison Scouts, one of the nation’s most revered and competitive drum and bugle corps.
A few were by themselves, but most came in in pairs, or groups of three or four. Almost everyone shook hands or embraced — warm receptions for their fellow alums, some of whom hadn’t seen each other for years but shared a bond few outsiders understood.
Scouts Honor, partially crowd-funded via IndieGoGo and the film’s own website, will be screened April 10 and 12 at Sundance Cinemas as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival. And while it isn’t the first documentary about the all-male Madison Scouts, Scouts Honor is the first in 15 years, and it arguably provides more insight into the rigors of the corps lifestyle than previous films.
Drum and bugle corps routines involve highly intricate marching unit choreography featuring brass instruments, percussion and color guard (a group of nonmusical participants that enhance performances with flags, rifles and dancing). Scouts Honor captures the discipline and sacrifice required of participants: They attend all-day practices in the service of creating perfect performances, sleep on gymnasium floors and travel for weeks on end. “It’s a very intense subculture that not a lot of people know about it, but the people who do know about it are really into it.” says Tom Tollefsen, a former percussionist for the Scouts in the mid-1990s who is now a lawyer in Jacksonville, Fla. Tollefsen produced and directed the film with Mac Smith, another former Scout.
Scouts Honor follows the stories of three members of the 2012 corps: Brandon MacConnell, a moody snare drummer and section leader from Richmond, Va.; Jo Higdon, an HIV-positive color-guard performer from Atlanta; and the personable Hunter Paradise, a 15-year-old trumpet-playing rookie from Corpus Christi, Texas — the youngest member of the 2012 Scouts.
“We got lucky with the cast,” says Smith, 41, who played contra-bass bugle in the Scouts in 1995 and now enjoys a successful career in post-production film work. “Tom and I had never made a movie before, and I didn’t know any of the members of the 2012 corps. Some of them were born after I marched. But when I was with them, I felt like I was home. It’s hard to explain.”
The Madison Scouts began almost 80 years ago, when a group of local businessmen witnessed a performance by the Racine Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps at the University of Wisconsin Stock Pavilion in 1937. One year later, they formed the Madison Scouts. The corps was affiliated with the local Boy Scouts of America council until the 1970s, and early performances were local, often in parades.
Drum and bugle corps eventually became known as “marching bands on steroids,” according to one soundbite from Scouts Honor, and the Scouts emerged as one of 13 founding members of Drum Corps International, the nonprofit governing body for junior drum and bugle corps in the United States. The Scouts went on to win two DCI world titles, in 1975 and 1988.
Today’s corps features 150 performing members (none older than 22) overseen by director Dann Petersen, who is featured prominently in Scouts Honor. In the early days, members came exclusively from the Madison area, and early-season training took place in the spacious parking lots at Madison Area Technical College’s Truax Campus and Middleton’s Kromrey Middle School. Now they come from all over; members of the 2014 corps represented more than 40 states and countries as far-flung as Japan.
Rising costs associated with housing and rehearsing have forced the corps to spend less time in their hometown. Spring training now takes place in Bloomington, Ind., but the Scouts pose for photos on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol every year and perform in Drums on Parade (June 27 this year) at Middleton High School’s Breitenbach Stadium — scenes featured in Scouts Honor.
“The corps is not in the spotlight in Madison anymore, and we hope that with the Wisconsin Film Festival screening, people will realize that the Scouts are still marching strong,” Smith says.
And still sounding incredible.
Expect to experience goose bumps during the film’s performance scenes. Co-producer John Torrijos used long, cylindrical shotgun microphones to pinpoint and record the music in 5.1 surround sound, resulting in a stunning audio experience that puts viewers at the center of the Scouts’ thunderous majesty.
Scouts Honor has garnered multiple honors, winning the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2014 Twin Cities Film Fest and “Best Documentary” at the Austin Indie Flix Showcase and the FLY Film Festival. Torrijos and Petersen plan to attend the festival screenings in Madison and participate in a question-and-answer session.
“It’s reassuring to see that the ethos of the corps has not changed,” says Rick Hudson, a Sun Prairie resident and former Madison Scout (1991-1992), who attended the February screening of Scouts Honor. “The continued pursuit of excellence is still there — that idea of achieving collectively what can’t be accomplished individually. The Scouts have always been about being a better man.”
While the film only captures a small percentage of what goes on during the 12-week touring season, it doesn’t glamorize corps life. In one of the most unsettling scenes, members of MacConnell’s drum line question his leadership ability. One member says he “goes through the motions, and it kinda tears us apart.”
“The negativity was unfortunate,” MacConnell, now 22 and a budding chef in Richmond, Va., told Isthmus. “But it shows that this activity can cause tension with your brothers, because everyone is so passionate and everyone has their thoughts on how every aspect should be done. The member that brought about the negativity is a good guy. We have spoken numerous times about what he said, and he has honestly apologized. That said, I was not the perfect leader. I was 20; I still had room to learn much more about myself.”
That’s a sentiment Smith can understand. The Scouts changed his life — a common refrain from former members. “I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it weren’t for my one year in the corps,” Smith says. “Being in the Scouts helped me go way past what I thought I could ever achieve. It taught me that anything you put your mind to and work hard for can be accomplished.”