Striking The Right Note

When musical theater began in the US, it was theater with musical numbers thrown in.  That all changed with Showboat in 1927.  From then on, musical theater incorporated song and dance to tell the story.  The great movie musicals, such as The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Oklahoma, followed that style, and they will soon be joined by Les Miserables.  But there’s also a place in movies for the quasi-musical that features singing or dancing as part of the plot.  Recent examples of this would be Dirty Dancing, Honey, and Step Up.  They’re comparatively inexpensive to make, so they’ll often spawn sequels – Step Up 4 came out in July.  Pitch Perfect could have been another of those movies, but the makers decided to twist the genre so it’s close to a Christopher Guest mocumentary, with a dash of Monty Python.  In the process they’ve created a fresh and funny film.

Barden College is a center for a cappella music and has two groups competing for the national title at the Lincoln Center.  The men’s group, the Treble Makers, are powerhouse performers, led by Bumper (Adam DeVine), while the women’s group, the Bellas, are old school and boring – at least until their performance goes horribly wrong in a way that will guarantee its success on YouTube.  Fast forward to the next school year, and only Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) remain from the previous Bella group.  They are desperate for singers.

New to campus that fall is Beca (Anna Kendrick) who’s a DJ and an aspiring music producer.  She’s constantly working on mashups of songs, blending beats and rhythms, and wants to be in LA pursuing her dream.  Instead, her estranged father Mitchell (John Benjamin Hickey), who’s a professor at Barden, offers to pay her way to LA if she will come to school and participate in its activities.  Beca becomes an intern at the school’s radio station, but that’s not enough to satisfy her father, so she goes out for the Bellas.

Chloe had heard Beca sing and is glad to have her, though Aubrey – who was responsible for the Lincoln Center fiasco – is less enthusiastic.  Beca does stand out among the rag-tag Bellas, that include Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), a transplant from Tasmania; nymphomaniac-in-training Stacie (Alexis Knapp); punk lesbian Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean); and the volume-challenged Lilly (Hana Mae Lee).  Aubrey is determined to squeeze these square pegs into the traditional Bella circular holes.

Beca meets Jesse (Skylar Astin) at the radio station.  He mounts a charm offensive, but Beca has pushed away from relationships with people all her life.  It also doesn’t help that Jesse has joined the Treble Makers, and the Bellas forbid any fraternization between the groups on pain of expulsion.

Kendrick has already done good work this fall on the screen as Jake Gyllenhaal’s love interest in End of Watch, after making a splash – and received an Oscar nod as best supporting actress – in 2010’s Up In The Air.  She began her career on Broadway, where she became the second youngest person nominated for a Best Actress Tony (at age 12) for her role in High Society.  She has also performed Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Jeremy Irons in a production by the New York City Opera.  She shines as Beca, both with the wit comedy and in the singing.

Rebel Wilson was memorable as Kirsten Wiig’s roommate in Bridesmaids.  Here she’s essentially a distaff version of John Belushi in Animal House, and she carries it off beautifully.  For Hana Mae Lee’s character Lilly, the running joke is how soft her voice is, but it’s worth straining to hear what she actually says.  (It will likely require viewing the DVD with the caption option activated.)

Some of the musical performances are cringe-worthy on purpose, especially the standard Bella performances, but when a performance is supposed to be great, it brings the house down.  Special mention must be made of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as the broadcast commentators at the regional and national shows.  They do for this movie what Fred Willard and Jim Piddock did as commentators for Best In Show.  (Higgins is a Christopher Guest vet, having appeared in A Mighty Wind as the leader of the folk-singing cult.)

Director Jason Moore, like Kendrick, is a Broadway musical vet, having directed Shrek: The Musical, Avenue Q, and Steel Magnolias.  While he’s done TV directing before, this is his first movie, and he crushes it (as Rebel Wilson says in the film).  He’s helped by a literate and hilarious script from Kay Cannon, a veteran of 30 Rock doing her first movie script.  It’s based on a non-fiction work by Mickey Rapkin about competitive a cappella singing in colleges.  Non-fiction to comedy has happened before; Mean Girls was based on a sociological study of high school students called Queen Bees and Wannabes.

There is one out-take included midway through the credits.  The movie’s trailer also features a scene that’s nowhere in the movie (a la Twister), but that just means that the DVD will have some killer deleted scenes.  What is in the movie is tight, delightful, and – have to say it – pitch perfect.

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