Pitch Perfect moves the kind of kids we see on Glee into college and focuses them on competitive cappella singing. Then it kicks up the humor and drama by adding sufficient crudity-with-a-heart to just barely avoid an R-rating and combining that with inventive arrangements of contemporary (and not so contemporary) hits.
Pitch Perfect opens with the finals of the national collegiate a cappella tournament, where reigning champs, the Treblemakers, Barden University’s all-male group kick musical ass while the Barden Bellas, falter with their ancient retread – and a lead vocalist who blows it (think The Exorcist’s Reagan – only not pea soup green…).
Cut to the Barden campus where Beca (Anna Kendrick) is arriving – and pretty much oblivious to everyone and everything around her – except her unwelcoming Korean roommate. Beca makes remixes and is focused on becoming a music producer. Unfortunately for her, she is aggressively recruited to join the Bellas, whose leader, Aubrey (Anna Camp), is determined to get back to the finals and redeem herself (and, mostly peripherally, the Bellas).
There’s a cute guy, Jesse (Skylar Astin), who takes it upon himself to flirt with Beca and a host of unusual auditioners to join the Bellas. Jesse, of course, wins a spot with the Treblemakers – causing a certain amount of tension – which is added to when Jesse’s roommate, Benji (Ben Platt) fails to make the group’s roster because he’s such a nerd he irks the group’s arrogant leader, Bumper (Adam DeVine).
While the Treblemakers continue to be polished to a fine sheen, the Bellas are mostly beginning from scratch with as motley a group as you could possibly find on a college campus – alt-girl Beca, punky lesbian Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), ultra-quiet Asian Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), sex bomb Stacie (Alexis Knapp), ultra confident Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) – who refers to herself as Fat Amy to just stay ahead of the ‘twig bitches’ who’d call her that behind her back – and Chloe (Brittany Snow), Aubrey’s second-in-command, who is mostly just ignored.
Once again, we have a competition movie that treads in the footsteps of every competition movie ever made – from sports to debate team to chess; we’ve seen all these tropes before. The characters are mostly types we’ve seen before, too, though they are definitely elevated to an unexpected level by the quality of the cast’s performances.
Where Pitch Perfect excels is the music – and the way the performers seem to connect with each other through it. There are dozens of songs featured – the Bellas’ final performance alone features half a dozen songs in a gloriously funky mash up.
All of which leads to a slight variation on the competition cliché – we get to see the chief competitors at the finals (as expected), but the actual Big Game/Showdown between the Bellas and Treblemakers? Well, that’s not quite what anyone is expecting.
Also unexpected is the gloriously unfiltered commentary by a broadcast team (the competition is aired on one of those obscure cable channels in the mid-hundreds) played with withering acid by John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth (she’s everywhere!) Banks. These two loathe each other almost as much as they love a cappella and they are hilariously unfiltered.
If you watch the closing credits, you’ll see that the cast did their own singing, so they got the roles because they were good both as actors and singers. That adds to the film’s effectiveness.
Most of the performances are really good, with Kendrick (whom I believe has yet to give anything less than a fine performance), Wilson (showing a wider range than I was expecting) and Camp especially terrific.
The a cappella arrangements range from the stolidity of the old Bellas to the brilliantly spectacular. Pitch Perfect earns a B just from the music, but gets bumped up a notch for adding crudity with a heart to what could have been just another boring competition story.
Final Grade: B+
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures