The “Pitch Perfect” Trilogy Gave Acapella a Much-Deserved Spotlight

Pitch Perfect

My first experience with acapella music came early in my tween years, when I dug up some old tapes labeled “non-instrumental.” Running them through the recorder, I at first didn’t believe it – those background voices sounded too similar to standard-issue drums and bass guitars. But I quickly caught on to the beatboxing and legato vocals that accompanied each song, and became fascinated by the concept – an entire orchestra composed of nothing but the collective human voice.

Yes, this humble writer was young once. But as many of his associates have noted, he’s never fully outgrown his youthfulness. Which may partly explain why he developed such an affinity for a film franchise which doesn’t seem aimed at his demographic: the Pitch Perfect trilogy.

It’s something of a passing affinity, I’ll disclose – none of the Pitch Perfect films can be mistaken for cinematic masterpieces. But there’s a bright and comic sense of joy to these films, which kept the age of the musical alive even when the last echoes of Moulin Rouge! and Chicago had faded away, and collectively accumulated half a billion dollars at the box office. The Pitch films aren’t perfect, but there’s enough good comedy and great non-instrumental singing to aca-scuse its flaws.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

The first Pitch Perfect is the series’ most narratively straightforward, which quickly proves to be its underlying strength. Nothing about the film is shocking or unpredictable, but the sturdy plot proves a strong foundation on which to develop the characters and riff on plenty of recent pop hits.

Loosely based on the nonfiction book by Mickey Rapkin, Pitch Perfect tells the story of the Barden Bellas, an all-female college acapella group. When freshman Beca (Anna Kendrick, best known at the time for her Oscar-nominated role in Up in the Air) reveals her throaty talents, she gains a spot in the group – but it isn’t long before she clashes with snobby leader Aubrey (Anna Camp).

Most of the characters and gags in Pitch Perfect are played in major key – the tone is set early on with a projectile-vomit joke – but a surprising amount of them hit the mark. Much credit goes to the cast, particularly Kendrick, Camp, and breakout Rebel Wilson, who plays the self-named Fat Amy with broad and goofy aplomb. The script (by Kay Cannon, who would write the sequels as well) is peppered with fun lines, even if it leans a bit too heavily on variations of the “aca” prefix.

But easily the film’s strongest asset is its use of vocal music. Whether in an audition scene spruced up by a cover of “Since You Been Gone,” or the franchise’s first riff-off competition (in which characters switch from Madonna to Pat Benatar without breaking a sweat), the film lets its soundtrack get creative at every opportunity, right up to its inevitable competition-based finale.

The film is not without some glaring flaws: The romance between Beca and rival acapella singer Jesse (Skylar Astin) never quite clicks, nor do a pair of film-punctuating color commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins. And while the musical numbers are quite creatively choreographed, it would be more impressive if director Jason Moore didn’t cut between shots so constantly.

But Pitch Perfect is fine entertainment, a comedy for the musical soul in all of us. If only the sequels, then, could measure up to their originator.

Score: B

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

The middle installment of the Pitch franchise suffers from a typical sequel stumbling block – the insatiable need to outdo the original. To that end, it tries to stuff as many new conflicts into the story as it can, until the script feels ready to burst.

Following a disastrous incident in which the Bellas embarrass themselves in front of the US President (this film was made back in the ancient days when appearing undignified before POTUS was something celebrities were worries about), our main characters find themselves in desperate need of salvaging their reputation. From this retroactive plotline, an astronomical challenge springs forth – competing in the World Championship of acapella. If they win, their reputation will (presumably) be restored.

That’s already a hefty serving for the film to offer. But there’s more – the Bellas meet a new set of rivals in the professional German singing group Das Sound Machine. (To their credit, that’s a pretty epic name.) But wait, there’s more – the Bellas acquire a nepotistic new recruit (Hailee Steinfeld) who threatens to upset their well-oiled applecart. But wait, there’s more! Beca is having serious doubts about post-college life, and her plans threaten to splinter the group beyond repair.

That’s an awful lot for one film to process, and Pitch Perfect 2 just isn’t able to carry it all. The misguided “more is more” mentality is best exemplified in the film’s riff-off sequence, which is far more complex and elaborate than the first film’s, yet never achieves the same level of offbeat spontaneity. It’s mostly an excuse for a lot of popular artists to get name-checked and song-checked, and for David Cross to ham things up in an extended cameo.

Pitch Perfect 2 is an adequate film – Elizabeth Banks, now in the director’s as well as the actor’s chair, juggles its various plot threads fairly well, allowing breathing room for some amusing jokes, and, of course, the obligatory songs. (A training camp montage, featuring music with a more “classic” bent, is the film’s highlight.) But the seams clearly show, even as the film tries to divert your attention from them.

Score: C+

Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)

The final Pitch installment elevates the practice of attention-diverting to an artform. The film runs about twenty minutes shorter than either of its predecessors, yet even its hour-and-a-half of screentime feels padded. Here is a film that desperately wants its audience’s attention, yet offers little reason for them to give it.

The threadbare plot focuses on the Bellas coming together – presumably for the last time, although Hollywood has lied to us before – to partake in a world tour with the USO. While there, the team clashes with a rival group of singers (again), embarrass themselves in a public display (again), and Beca finds herself at an uncomfortable crossroads (again). The film seems to follow Pitch Perfect 2 almost beat-for-beat, except with even less of a coherent story and not nearly as many laughs. (The film’s funniest moment is actually a throwaway line from one of the team’s two backup singers.)

Pitch Perfect 3 makes a near-fatal mistake in pivoting its main storyline around singer/producer DJ Khaled, who plays himself in one of the most overly glorified cameos in modern cinema. Khaled is the film’s financial guru, the man who can make or break Beca’s future – yet the film’s insistence on having a real-life figure play an active role in the story never feels like more than a superficial selling point. Worse still, it distracts and disorients from what is supposed to be an emotional sendoff.

Even the script itself seems to recognize that it’s running on fumes. That may explain why, in its final half-hour, Pitch Perfect 3 morphs into an action/espionage thriller, complete with abductions, fights, explosions, topped off by an extended rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It feels like we’ve been transported into another film entirely, with the movie’s in media res intro a weak attempt to give the story a full-circle feel.

But that’s the ultimate problem with Pitch Perfect 3 – almost nothing connects, either with the audience or with each other. During the film’s signature riff-off, the Bellas watch helplessly as their favorite game is misappropriated by other teams, its rules broken every which way. The entire sequence is almost parodically discombobulated in its pacing and choice of music – the use of a Beyoncé song feels so forced into the sequence that the girls can’t help but comment on its randomness.

Only in the film’s final musical sequence does director Trish Sie stop waving her camera around and let heart and creativity take over. This finale gives the Bellas one last tuneful sendoff, and doubles as a heartwarming tribute to the late George Michael. It’s the sort of wistfulness that has been so disappointingly lacking in the franchise’s final installment, and it sends the series out on a (literal and figurative) high note.

Sequences like that are a reminder that, despite its penchant for broad slapdash comedy, the Pitch Perfect films remain a fitting tribute to the art of acapella. Perhaps someday, another major film will see fit to bring this genre of music to worldwide audiences. And hopefully, that film’s trailers will not include too many shots of Rebel Wilson falling on her face.

Score: C-

All Pitch Perfect films are available on DVD and for digital download.

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