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The Casper Troopers’ dramatic rise from near extinction

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff
Mferlazzo@yahoo.com

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The Casper Troopers’ dramatic rise from near extinction in 2006 back to DCI World Class Finals last year — for the first time in 23 years — sounds like a story that’s pure Hollywood. And it turns out that it does make for a pretty good movie in this spring’s “Hell Bent for Victory,” the second Troopers documentary in three years by producers Michael D. Gough (wearing the hate), a former Troopers drum major, and Dieter Wiselogel.

Just like the improvements the Troopers have shown in going from 20th in 2007 to 12th last summer, the filmmakers have shown similar cinematic advancements in this year’s sequel to 2008’s “America’s Core,” which documented the corps’ comeback 2007 season.

“Hell Bent for Victory” displays more artistic cinematography, enhanced visual effects and better use of music to tell a compelling story that’s sure to be a hit with drum corps fans when the DVD is released on May 15.

Two drum corps legends who were there for the Casper corps’ glory years with famed Founder and Director Jim Jones — DCI World Championship public address announcer Brandt Crocker, who worked with Jones and the Troopers in the 1960s and 1970s; and Drum Corps World Editor/Publisher Steve Vickers, who bought the paper, in part, from Jones — also were there with this reviewer to screen an advanced copy of the new film. While they both enjoyed viewing the footage, they differed slightly on their degree of enjoyment.

“I thought Mike [Gough] learned a great deal [from the first documentary] that he incorporated in this new version,” Vickers said. “It was a lot better than the first one, I thought. It was a more clear story. I liked a lot of the camera techniques and the use of background music. I enjoyed it.”

Crocker hadn’t seen the documentary on the Troopers’ return and could, therefore, only judge the sequel on its own merit.

“I’m in the middle. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great,” he said.

Like you’d expect from a sequel, this new film picks up right where the first one left off, at the 2007 DCI World Championships in the Rose Bowl as the corps culminates its reborn season. A montage of largely black and white stills and video clips then transitions the audience through the opening credits and the next two years, to the start of the 2009 summer.

That’s where we are introduced to Kyle Trader, the Troopers’ 2007 horn sergeant and 2008 drum major, who is a new member of the visual staff. We revisit interviews with Trader over the course of the season to gauge the corps’ development.

According to the credits, the film also features 2009 Drum Major Corey Moore, Brass Arranger Dean Westman, Brass Caption Head Scott Lee Atchison, bass drummer Amanda Bell and DCI Hall of Famer and Percussion Arranger Ralph Hardimon.

While each interjects a role in the story’s plot, the audience learns little about each characters’ lives, with the exception of Trader and Moore, who both receive considerable interview face time. It’s a bit disappointing that there wasn’t more character development, given the prominence of the names in the opening credits. Bell, particularly, receives only a brief mention in the story as being Moore’s girlfriend.

But the absence of personal stories is possibly by design since the film is clearly about the corps and not any one individual. And that story evolves over the course of the summer from the members’ concerns over scores and their burning desire to make finals, to learning that performing with joy and love in their hearts is essential to finding the emotional level of a finalist.

So while there was obvious satisfaction from corps members and staff over achieving their finals goal, there’s even greater joy over the performance level that got them there.

Yes, there were shots of great celebration in Indianapolis when the staff and members learned they were back in the Saturday night show. But the end seemed a bit less climactic since the corps seemed more content with the effort rather than the outcome.

Noticeably absent were interviews with Troopers Director Fred Morris and Executive Director Mike Ottoes, who were central to the corps’ rebirth and subsequent return to finals. That may be because Gough and Wiselogel had focused so much attention on them in “America’s Core,” the first documentary.

A welcome addition was a segment showcasing former Drum Major, Staffer and Director John Masterson, accompanied by a brief flashback sequence through some of the corps’ storied past. The vintage footage included excerpts from the very first documentary on the corps, “The Troopers Are Coming,” produced by Barbre Productions in Denver back in the late 1960s.

Crocker enjoyed the brief trip back in time, but was left wanting more.

“From the standpoint that this was about the modern, 21st Century Troopers, I would have liked to see a little bit more of the historical factor,” he said. “Yeah, we caught some glimpses of it, but I guess I would have liked to have seen more of back in the day, where they were then, as opposed to where they are now.”

And there were reasons, beyond pure nostalgia, why Crocker believed the Troopers’ past needed to be more of a part of this present day tale.

“The thing I think that has been ignored — that nobody’s ever touched on — is how much has been introduced to the activity straight from Casper, WY,” he said. “Touring. How to tour. How to feed kids on tour. Let’s talk about souvies. The kids started out selling them, then we had a    souvie wagon. I can remember [two-valve] bugles being invented in a garage in Casper.”

While “Hell Bent for Victory” may come up a bit shy on retelling the Troopers’ proud past, it does a great job of capturing a new video chapter in their evolving history.

The DVD sells for $20 and fans can order it through the Web site at http://www.hellbentforvictory.com. All proceeds benefit the Troopers.

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

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