If you’ve never been involved in a cappella music, the first 20 or so minutes of Pitch Perfect might be rough chop to to sail through. There are a lot of jokes in a faux-Diablo Cody wins the Oscar for Juno style about a lesser-known aspect of the college music experience. The cast is camping it up beyond anything to get such a wide release in recent memory. And everyone is a music-obsessed nerd who doesn’t even need to define the rules of music arrangement, music competition, or musician culture on a college campus.
Pitch Perfect is loosely adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Mickey Rapkin. Rapkin followed the 2006-07 a cappella competition season of Tufts’ The Beelzebubs, University of Virginia’s Hullabahoos, and University of Oregon’s Divisi. The focus of the book is trying to decode the minor rock star status of these groups on campuses. The students who know you exist and know what you do tend to be as fanatical about college a cappella as teenagers are for the latest pop stars.
Screenwriter Kay Cannon pulls from the general archetypes of these three groups to create two rival a cappella groups for the Pitch Perfect film. The Barden Bellas, the first all-female group to make the national finals, become the laughing stock of collegiate a cappella after an unfortunate accident onstage. They compete directly at every level with national champions The Treble Makers, an all-male group with a fantastic reputation on campus. The Bellas recruit wannabe music producer Beca to sing with them, but struggle over who really controls the group puts their championship ambitions on shaky ground.
Pitch Perfect is almost overwritten. It gives the fantastic ensemble cast a whole lot of room to play, but perhaps tries too hard to please everyone. The first 20 minutes are symptomatic of the greater problem with the film. This is a film that knows its target audience (a cappella fans) are going to find the film, so it doesn’t really try to open up that element of the story to a wider audience. Instead, they layer on tons of jokes and over the top characters to draw people in despite the niche subject matter.
For the most part, it’s successful. Standouts Anna Kendrick (as Beca), Anna Camp (as Aubrey, the Bellas’ leader), Brittany Snow (as Chloe, second in command), and Rebel Wilson (as Fat Amy, the best singer in Tasmania) slay every scene they’re in. The quartet almost act as a less outrageous version of Bridesmaids within the greater hybrid sports/dance team movie.
Don’t get it twisted. There is nothing innovative about the structure of the film. Pitch Perfect firmly falls in the same territory as Bring It On, The Bad News Bears, and the Step Up series. A group of underdogs find a few secret weapons that bring them up to the level of their competition after a major setback.
The difference is the use of music. For all the “this is one doodle that can’t be undid, Homeskillet” of the dialogue (a ca-stop-with-the-terrible a cappella puns, for God’s sake), the real draw is the music. The arrangements in Pitch Perfect are very strong. They define the character of the groups and the progression of The Bellas as they fight for the national title.
If something seems awkward or off, it’s intentional. If something seems really sad, it’s intentional. The use of music does more to define the arcs of these characters than the over the top eye-rolls and pratfalls of the willing cast. The vocal performances also sound organic, with mixing that adds just the right level of reverb to shower stalls, alleys, and the different auditorium styles the singers compete in.
Pitch Perfect is a fun film. The ambition comes through in the presentation of the music and the performances of the ensemble cast. The story is strictly boilerplate. Everything else is the innovation. You might not come out with a better understanding of how a cappella music competition works, but you will have a lot of respect for the cast of rising stars giving it their all in every scene.
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