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New films put drummers center stage

In The Beatles, he was the first guy fired. In The Who, he was the “crazy” one who died.

In Spinal Tap, he sat in the back until he blew up or otherwise expired. And on The Muppets, you never knew if Animal was keeping a beat or contemplating a killing spree.

Whatever role the man or woman behind the drum kit might play in the real world, in the movies they're always the same – a bit gonzo, a little off in the head, and always wearing that face. It's not “guitar face.” It's something altogether more frightening.

“Oh, you know it,” says John C. Reilly, an actor who can play most any instrument (“Walk Hard,” “A Prairie Home Companion”), but plays the drums as the spoiled, delusional Dale Doback, live-at-home loser, in the new comedy “Step Brothers.” “It's a facial representation of all the artistry and physical agony and passion you're putting into those sticks. Your mouth is open. Your eyes all big and wide. You know, like Keith Moon!”

“Dude, you can't play drums with a straight face,” says Rainn Wilson, the title character in “The Rocker” (Aug. 20), a particularly goofy drummer finally living the rock dream when he's pushing 40. “You can't play drums and look calm, cool and collected.”

It's not just the face, which Moon (of The Who) perfected.

“The drummer's always the butt of the jokes,” Reilly says. “Something about them, the extreme concentration and facial contortions that they show, just makes 'em funny.”

Wilson, an Emmy nominee for “The Office,” goes a bit further.

“Drummers are idiots,” Wilson says, riffing on his character, Robert “Fish” Fishman. “Drummers are people who like to hang out with real musicians. They like to sit behind them and make loud noises and weird faces. There's a certain baboonish quality to drummers.”

That's cold.

And it's not true, says Don Coffey of the Knoxville-based Superdrag.

“And even if it were true, you'd never get me to admit it,” laughs Coffey, drummer for indie rockers known for such CDs as ‘Last Call for Vitriol.' I mean, some of us are goofballs. … We just make sure we're not living down to how the movies portray us.”

Wilson, who says he started drum lessons three weeks before shooting began, knew he'd never look like an expert.

“But if you can hit the cymbal in the right spot and twirl your sticks between beats, you've got it,” Wilson says. “That's the secret to heavy metal! You don't need to be able to keep a beat. Just make sure you know those stick tricks!”

Wilson even got to share a scene with a legendary drummer in “The Rocker,” but not legendary in a good way. His character shares a park bench with Pete Best, the guy Ringo Starr replaced. He's sort of the inspiration for “The Rocker,” the drummer who got fired before the band hit it big.

“I don't know, but I think he did all right,” Wilson says of Best. “He's still around, still married to the same woman, still revered. Maybe this is one case where the drummer got the last laugh.”