Review: ‘Pitch Perfect’
My love for acappella started when I was a freshman in high school. The renowned Binghamton Crosbys would visit every January and sing their powerful, well-arranged covers, while at the same time a group of six senior guys were forming a group of their own named after ‘The Simpsons’ “B Sharps.” I eventually joined that group, and another in college (Syracuse University’s Orange Appeal), and fell completely into the subculture. I absorbed collegiate albums, YouTube videos, professional shows and the like, while practicing it myself. For the unaware, the genre of acappella is way more vast than you can imagine and it is startlingly well represented in its latest shot at the big time, ‘Pitch Perfect.’
Contemporary collegiate a cappella as an art form arguably dates back a hundred years or so to the Yale Whiffenpoofs, but it really picked up steam in the late 80s and 90s, when groups realized they could imitate instruments in their arrangements, and began putting out studio quality albums. The Internet was the real catalyst for the acappella boom (as it was for many other niche interests) and suddenly you had thousands of groups across the country, best-of compilation discs, and international competition.
Acappella didn’t begin to get noticed by the mainstream until the mid-to-late 2000s. This isn’t an exhaustive list of pop culture nods but there was Rockappella on ‘Carmen San Diego’ and later, Ed Helms’ ‘Office’ character, Adam Scott’s family in ‘Step Brothers’, and acappella’s shot at the big leagues, reality competition ‘The Sing Off’ on NBC. The mainstream media’s acknowledgement of the medium spanned from mockery to geeky-love. ‘The Sing Off’ was successful as a limited-run series in the holiday winter months, but proved incapable of getting strong ratings when it ran as a full-time series. This might have had to do with the poor state at NBC, or the lingering niche appreciation for the genre.
Forgive me for speaking for everyone but, ‘Pitch Perfect’ is the love letter and depiction the entire acappella community has been waiting for. ‘Pitch Perfect’ knows acappella at times can be silly but it doesn’t take it any less seriously for it. Though it’s not without its nitpick-y unrealistic moments, no piece of acappella fiction or any fiction for that matter has so closely illustrated actual experiences that I had. The community and devotion displayed between the characters on screen is sharp and precise. The tense, nervous, and exhilarating feeling one gets before, after, and during a show is totally spot on. There are no announcers at an ICCA show and it would be almost impossible for two groups from the same school to go the finals, but everything else is pretty much how it is. The rehearsals, the traveling, the camaraderie, the inter-group competition, and the drive to be different and exciting resonates to an insane degree. Never before have the issues of what all-female groups face been so well defined either. Their underdog status makes for a perfect filmic focus. And no, riff-offs don’t actually exist.
But enough about me, as a movie, ‘Pitch Perfect’ is a winner. This is Kay Cannon’s ‘Mean Girls’ moment. The script is catch-you-off-guard hilarious, combining the best aspects of the aforementioned ‘Mean Girls’ with ‘Bring It On’ and yes, ‘Glee’. (Though it manages to subvert ‘Glee’ as well.) It’s genuine in its comedy but ‘30 Rock’ fans will be glad to find some meta, self-aware humor laid throughout. ‘Pitch Pefect’ has the potential to be the cult favorite that those movies (and television) became. Its characters are so lovable and its lines and humor are so memorable, it could take hold of a whole generation of young people.
The film was supremely cast, giving rising stars a real chance to shine. Rebel Wilson is at the top of the list of reasons to see ‘Pitch Perfect’. As “Fat Amy” she steals every scene she’s in and sings well to boot. Wilson may not be a household name yet, but she will be. Anna Kendrick as our heroine Becca brings her acclaimed chops to the table. She brings a depth and subtlety to the role what few her age could have, but there are some issue with the character. Yes, she can sing and we believe her talent, but her actions sporadically border on unlikable and cause problems in the storytelling towards the end of the film. Elsewhere, a million girls just fell in love with Skylar Astin and his killer pipes, and Adam Devine cemented his status as a comedic force who knows how to deliver a line. Filling it all out are winning supporting roles from John Benjamin Hickey, Elizabeth Banks, Fred Willard, and cameos from Christopher Mintz Plasse, Donald Faison and Joe Lo Truglio among others.
Furthering the authenticity of the acappella community, the producers wisely brought on acappella titans Deke Sharon and Ed Boyer, the former of which ‘Pitch Perfect’ the book (on which the movie is based) refers to as the godfather of modern acappella. The two are nearly solely responsible for the current sound of acappella and its trajectory, so it was wise to bring them in as music directors and arrangers. The music choices will be familiar to top 40 listeners, but the arrangements are anything but straightforward, proving that beautiful harmonies, expertly built structure, and talented singers (ANNA KENDRICK) can sell almost anything. On top of that, ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Next to Normal’s Tom Kitt gave additional assistance with the arrangements. If you think the Warblers on ‘Glee’ sound overproduced you’re going to be very happy to hear more natural yet still massively-impressive acappella of ‘Pitch Perfect.’ But don’t forget to suspend your disbelief and accept the fact that in the world of the movie acappella singing can just come together out of thin air.
So it’s funny, and the music is excellent, and the acting is great, but by the end of the film you also may find yourself unabashedly rooting for the characters. Not only does it bring to light the struggle and persistence of all-female acappella, but it manages to tell a human story of growth, finding where you belong, and finding the people who will help you through it. Even the love story, though mostly just a subplot, is solid and touching. ‘Pitch Perfect’s beating heart may blindside you.
It goes much without saying that I’ll be seeing this again, and I hope that all the positive buzz translates into a lasting love of this film. As a former acappella singer with a special tie to the art form, I want to thank everyone who made ‘Pitch Perfect’ and so accurately captured what acappella is. All of the other kick-ass-ness is just icing on top.