Justin does Pitch Perfect

“Organized nerd singing? This is great!”

The Scoop: 2012, rated PG-13, directed by Jason Moore and starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp and Rebel Wilson.

Tagline: Get Pitch Slapped.

Summary Capsule: Social rebel leads misfits to a cappella glory in musically epic battle-of-the-sexes.
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Justin’s Rating: B-sharp

Justin’s Review: I think I fall very much in the category of “guy who really appreciates music but can’t contribute much to the making and/or performing of it,” which leaves me as an eternal spectator in this field.  So while I watch an entire college that is somehow in the throes of a musical cult break out into constant song, I couldn’t help but pity myself a little and feel like an outsider.  That’s okay; a good musical is worth a little self-pity.

Pitch Perfect’s been on my list to watch for some time now, but it was only the other day when my wife was looking for a chick flick to enjoy with me that it graced our television.  It was a good compromise, a nice mix of light-hearted friendship, comedy, and modern acappella mixes that carried a high energy from the start to the end.  Plus, our one-year-old got a huge kick out of each musical number, clapping in delight after each one finished, so I guess the directors hit that demographic as well.

Our heroine of the hour is Beca (Anna Kendrick), who possesses a gigantic set of teeth and every trait that makes her a movie rebel that female viewers can look at and go, “Oh, that’s so me!  This is a fantastic coincidence!  I’m 80% sure that the writers aren’t trying to pander to me here!”  I mean, she’s cocky and self-sure, a little alternative but not frighteningly so, and she can both sing like an angel and be a DJ like a devil.  In the 2010s, a girl with a huge set of headphones is the new “dorky girl with glasses” trope, I guess.

Beca arrives at college, all grumpy that her dad is getting her a free education when all she really wants is to go to LA and become a world-famous music producer!  Right then I was totally on her father’s side (which shows you how much I’m not the target demographic here) because (a) free college education, you stupid woman and (b) do you not think that music producers need education?  Her dad saved her from becoming a good-looking homeless wench on the side of an LA highway turnoff holding a sign, “WILL MIX BEATS 4 FOOD.”

Anyway, Beca is convinced to join up with one of the many (!) acappella groups on campus, the Barton Bellas, and help them reclaim their missed chance at glory.  The Bellas are on the down-and-out due to an unfortunate puking incident at finals, which means that the only way back up is to assemble a rag-tag team of misfits that have hidden singing talents that will emerge to win the day.  And there’s a “forbidden” romance between Beca and one of the members of the opposite team.  Yeah, it’s the sports movie formula, only with lots of singing.

I’m really not a huge fan of the new fascination with acappella and have enjoyed Community’s deconstruction of what makes Glee so insipid, but Pitch Perfect didn’t get that cloying.  It helps that it’s pretty dang funny in spots, has a lot of fun with its setups, and even works in a little Breakfast Club there (I guess they only paid for the rights to the last minute of that movie, since they show it like three times).  It was very welcome to see Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids) join the cast, because she’s the type of fearless, hilarious actress that shows Hollywood that it needs to get past its severe body issues.

Chick flick or no, Pitch Perfect delivered a wonderfully engaging performance that isn’t marred by any overly dramatic aspects or even much mean-spirited rivalry (I really liked how the two main rival groups enjoyed getting together to jam more than just being jerks to each other).  Plus, I’m totally Beca, if I was 20 years old.  And a female.  And could sing.  And had $10,000 of DJ mixing equipment that I lugged around.  And for some reason hated movies.  Okay, I’m not Beca at all.

Courtney’s Rating: Makes me wanna vocalize some music! Boom chicka eera-eera! (I can’t sing, so I’m inventing textual beatboxing.)

Courtney’s Review: A cappella, music made entirely with human voices in place of instruments, has been gaining widespread popularity in pop culture lately, but it’s been a proud music geek tradition at colleges across the US just about forever. Pitch Perfect focuses in on Barden University’s Bellas, an all-female ensemble trying to recover from a nasty catastrophe (canastrophe!) at last year’s National Championship (their all-male rivals, the Treblemakers, were crowned winners.)

The only remaining Bellas are neurotic control-freak Aubrey (Anna Camp) and perky but passive Chloe (Brittany Snow). Desperate for recruits, the duo are forced to lower their standards and admit a bunch of oddballs. Among them is disaffected and vaguely alternative Beca (Anna Kendrick), an aspiring DJ who only joined as part of a deal with her father. Beca’s career as a Bella gets off to a shaky start, as her ideas to radically alter the Bellas’ decades-old arrangement and her flirting with Treblemaker Jesse (Skylar Astin) has her butting heads with tradition-stickler Aubrey.

You can probably guess where the rest of this is headed. It’s the same underdog tale told all over again, this time with instrument-less covers of pop songs and more clichés than you can shake your jazz hands at. But screenwriter Kay Cannon uses the familiar premise to her advantage, mostly by poking fun at some the tropes that have become exhaustively inevitable in the genre. Extra points for the character drama being less shallow than typical; for example, the main obstacle keeping Beca and Jesse apart isn’t their groups’ rivalry, but their contrasting personalities – Beca’s guarded and Jesse’s a bit too eager to intervene in various aspects of her life. The comedy is equal parts hits and misses. While the overall tone is very twee and YA-friendly, there are more than a few gross-out gags (mostly puke shots and references to gender-specific body parts) and politically incorrect jokes (Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins sporadically pop in as inappropriate competition commentators, and Beca’s roommate, played by Jinhee Joung, peppers her few lines of dialogue with casual racism.) These elements aren’t balanced very well, and the effect is pretty schizophrenic.

The movie’s greatest strength is its pitch perfect (hey, that’s the title!) casting. Beca could have easily come off as a surly, annoying musical wunderkind, but Kendrick manages to give her a warmth and likability. Aubrey is never as loathsome as the average heroine’s foil, and Camp’s performance suggests an apprehension that makes her sympathetic. Chloe mainly functions as a bridge between Beca and Aubrey’s extremes, but Snow manages to milk her shining moments for all they’re worth. But it’s Rebel Wilson as crude, rude and lewd Fat Amy who stands out with her deadpan delivery and physical bits like “mermaid dancing.” She could have easily become an overused gag, but she thankfully doesn’t creep into the spotlight very often. The ragtag Bellas round out to include masculine powerhouse Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean); promiscuous ditz Stacie (Alexis Knapp); quiet but possibly unhinged Lilly (Hana Mae Lee); and three girls whose roles are so minor that near the end of the second act, Aubrey actually shouts that it’s like they haven’t been around all year. They may not be major players, but each lady leaves a unique stamp on the movie and is genuinely entertaining to watch.

While the Trebles receive less screen-time, it’s enough for Adam Devine to steal a few scenes as their jerky leader Bumper, whose music nerdery actually makes him Cobra Kai Johnny in this world. But the main attraction is Astin’s Jesse, who is mostly defined by his clumsy charm (sufficiently justifying comparisons to a young John Cusack) and an appreciation for The Breakfast Club, which ends up tying into the climax. One great side plot doesn’t figure the Bellas in at all, instead centering on Jesse and his roommate, Benji (Ben Platt), whose fanboy love for magic, Star Wars, and the Treblemakers is simply adorable. It’s rare for a movie to acknowledge that the love interest character has their own social life that doesn’t directly relate to the main character, and it’s a pleasing little surprise here.

But what are we doing, going on about story and characters? We all know the main draw for this movie: the music. The majority of the soundtrack features hits from the past five years, but a few ’80s and ’90s pop songs get thrown in as well. It may not be the best music ever written, but the vocals-only arrangements are impressive. I don’t want to spoil too much of the Bellas’ final number, but I will say that it’s an intricate mash-up of two songs I do not like, two songs I think are okay, and one song I never thought any cover could do justice to. And it’s awesome. The performances work better onscreen than on the soundtrack (you can tell most of the numbers had been unnecessarily edited from the versions heard in the film) but the soundtrack is still a worthy purchase.

Pitch Perfect falters in its attempts to mimic recent hits like Bridesmaids and Superbad as well as bona fide classics like The Breakfast Club. But it’s still fluffy, quotable fun with potential to become a perennial sleepover favorite. A sequel would be welcome, but only if it boasts the same fantastic production values and doesn’t overdo the Fat Amyisms.

Those flight safety demonstrations have really gotten elaborate lately.

Intermission!

  • The movie is a loose adaptation of Mickey Rapkin’s nonfiction book Pitch Perfect: the Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory.
  • Fans of NBC’s short-lived a cappella competition The Sing-Off may recognize one of the peripheral Bellas as Kelley Jakle, who competed in Season 1 with the SoCals and Season 2 with the Backbeats.
  • Keep an eye out for cameos by Turk, McLovin, and McLaggen.
  • Ester Dean, the actress who plays Cynthia Rose, is an accomplished songwriter. One of her songs is Rihanna’s “S&M”, which her character sings in the movie.
  • Unused categories for the riff-off include “Puppet Songs,” “White Michael Jackson” and “Songs Ruined by Glee.”

Groovy Dialogue:

Jesse: Organized nerd singing? This is great!

Gail: Nothing makes a woman feel more like a girl than a man who sings like a boy.

Aubrey: What’s your name?
Fat Amy: Fat Amy.
Aubrey: You call yourself Fat Amy?
Fat Amy: Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.

Bumper: You girls are awesome…ly horrible. I hate you. Kill yourselves. Girl power! Sisters before misters!

John: Women are about as good at a cappella as they are at being doctors.

Bumper: I have a feeling we should kiss. Is that a good feeling, or an incorrect feeling?
Fat Amy: Sometimes I have the feeling I can do crystal meth, but then I think, mmm… better not.

Aubrey: My dad always says, if you’re not here to win, get the hell out of Kuwait.

Donald: Who do you think would be easier to sleep with: Captain America, or a great white shark?
Bumper: A great white shark.

Lilly: I ate my twin in the womb.

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