After two harrowing years participating in collegiate a cappella, I was prepared to absolutely despise Pitch Perfect. Hollywood is generally very, very bad at accurately depicting college subcultures, focusing mainly on narratives revolving around binge drinking and casual sex. I expected to sit through this comedy groaning at attempts to depict the embarrassingly earnest and deceptively rough world of a cappella, which admittedly, does tend to feature binge drinking, but doesn’t really involve a whole lot of casual sex. These are a cappella nerds, after all.
I was pleasantly surprised. Following in the footsteps of movies like Bring It On and Mean Girls, Pitch Perfect hits the right note between cynical observation and the over-the-top enthusiasm for the subject at hand.
Based loosely on the nonfiction book, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, by Mickey Rapkin, Pitch Perfect condenses and familiarizes the often obscure subculture of a cappella for a generation that has cut its eyeteeth on shows like The Sing Off and Glee. Though it relies heavily on clichés and predictable plotlines even while often careening into the absurd, it manages to charm the audience into playing along with genre conventions.
We follow Anna Kendrick (of Twilight fame) in a departure from her usual squeaky-clean fare as she plays the pierced, tattooed, heavily eyeliner-ed aspiring music producer Beca. A snarky and cynical freshman at the Ivy League-esque Barden University, who, by all markers of her “alternative” persona and “amazingly scary ear spike,” we are to assume is a Bad Ass, with a capital B and A, Beca wants nothing more than to drop out of school and move to Los Angeles to become the next David Guetta.
Aggressively recruited in one of the most awkward shower scenes I’ve seen in quite some time and bribed into compliance by her faculty member father, beleaguered Beca joins the Barden Bellas. The Bellas are a ne’er-do-well troupe headed by the uptight and controlling Audrey, played by Anna Camp. As a fair warning, Audrey’s stress relief valve provides either gruesome chuckles or a reawakened gag reflex, depending on your views on gratuitous bodily fluid jokes. I find that I fall into the latter camp.
The plot of Pitch Perfect isn’t anything to write home about – the Bellas are a ragtag group of misfits trying desperately to win at the national competition of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA). I was surprised to find out that the ICCA is actually a thing—a thing I never knew existed in my years of college a cappella because most collegiate a cappella groups are more focused on touring than competing, much less a thing with hilariously snarky commentators played by producer Elizabeth Banks and a delightfully misogynistic John Michael Higgins. The competition itself is a rip roaring production of stylized a cappella, complete with a cappella groupies —these, for better or worse, actually do exist.
With prideful, annoying characters like Audrey and the rival Treblemakers’ douchebag leader, Bumper, and painfully trite and politically incorrect character writing (Overeager stalkers are the boys you want to date! Girls with big breasts are sluts! Being a lesbian is so weird that it’s funny!), it would be easy to dismiss this movie. There’s a dearth of minority women characters and the only ones given any screen time serve only as walking jokes – there’s the butch lesbian, Cynthia (whose screen time is devoted to her ogling of women and jokes about her being a man), and the quiet (and quite possibly psychotic) Lilly. But for every troublesome plot point or characterization, there are scenes with Australian actress Rebel Wilson. Wilson’s brash character, Fat Amy—yes, that’s her actual name—delivers a punchy performance that makes you laugh out loud every time she opens her mouth.
A cappella in general is presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner, preying on Glee-established conventions of organised geeks singing. The groups are a collection of truly nerdy troubadours who are far smugger and far more serious about their craft than they have any right to be. That, of course, is the movie’s main punch line writ large. The drama of this film is predicated on your ability to buy into a universe in which a cappella groups are socially on par with—if not superior to—fraternities and sororities, vocal nodes are a life-threatening illness worthy of an afterschool special, groups are capable of “riff-offs” a midnight Grease-like rumble in which these groups can arrange on the fly and interrupt each other mid-song to create a mash-up that would make any techno-DJ cry with joy, and ten voices can sound like a full blown concert with a suspiciously deep bass line that sounded a lot like a synthesized drum set.
Buying into this universe, with its bastardised lexicon (“aca-awesome,” anyone?), is half the fun. The other half, of course, is the performances, which, despite being not quite believable in some cases (see: “riff-offs”), are a total blast. Pitch Perfect is a cappella gone Hollywood, and surprisingly, it stays on key.
Pitch Perfect is in stores now on BluRay, DVD, and Digital Copy.