Friday, May 16, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Pitch Perfect

It's a bit of a stretch to call Pitch Perfect a musical, though you could argue it has just as good a claim as jukebox musicals like Rock of Ages.  Or better, since it was actually, you know, worth watching.

Pitch Perfect shouldn't work nearly as well as it does.  In most respects its "edginess" has a sanded-off quality: it's the type of movie where having slightly heavy dark eye makeup makes you an alternative freak.  Where deep inner meaning can be found in The Breakfast Club ending.  Where a Mylie Cyrus song is "cool" and "now."

Virtually everything about Pitch Perfect you have seen before.  In fact, I consider it to be Bring It On with a capella singing instead of cheerleading.  Both feature situations where characters assume the mantle of leadership, which includes steering the group to a championship.  Both have the "alternative" character who was reluctant to even join, but who soon schools the rest of the group.  Both have the "cool geek" male love interest.  And both require the group to learn dizzyingly complex routines in a ridiculously short amount of time.  Do they pull it off?  SPOILER ALERT.... they do!      

Bring It On is also highly derivative, but at least it tries something new with the formula, and so is arguably the better movie.  Yet there is something infectious about Pitch Perfect.  Probably a combination of the actresses' chemistry, the generally irreverent tone, and the singing.  Because the singing is fun to watch... even when it's Mylie Cyrus.

Plot Synopsis

The Bellas, an all-female a capella group at Barden University in Georgia, manage to reach the championship round, until Aubrey Posen projectile vomits during the routine.  Determined to make up for her, er, spill, Aubrey -- now the group leader -- and Chloe Beale search for a new group that will bring them the championship.  However, few people want anything to do with the Bellas after Aubrey's embarrassment, and the group sits in the long shadow of Barden's all-male a capella group, the Treblemakers.

Enter Beca Mitchell.  She's only at Barden because her dad is a professor and her tuition's free -- but she would rather be living out her dream in Los Angeles as a DJ.  Beca's dad promises to fund her move if she is still unhappy with college one year later, but only if she makes a good-faith effort to fit in by joining a college activity.  So Beca becomes one of the latest misfit recruits to the Bellas.  Her "sisters" include Fat Amy, a politically incorrect Australian; Cynthia Rose, a black lesbian with a gambling problem; and Lilly, an Asian girl who delivers shocking pronouncements in whispers.

Aubrey wants to keep the Bellas on a short leash, which includes no romantic interaction with any Treblemakers.  But Beca is developing a relationship with "cool geek" Treblemaker, Jesse Swanson, and resents having to conform to Aubrey's dated musical numbers.  Tempers flair, friendships are broken, but everyone finally comes together for that final rally and, well, I've already spoiled the ending.

The Good

Girls Being Girls.  One of the things that is easy to ignore is how well the girls play off of one another.  It's the sort of chemistry that shows like Glee push to achieve, but never do.  It's also worth noting that Pitch Perfect falls within the trend of recent hit movies and television shows that treat relationships between women with respect.  See, for example, Frozen and Orange Is the New Black.  The latter, like Pitch Perfect, showcases not only relationships between women, but women of different body types.  That's not to say Pitch Perfect has anything very deep or meaningful to say about female diversity, but at least it never pretends that all women are a Size 2.

That also doesn't mean earlier movies like Bring It On didn't showcase women.  Besides having a heavily female-centric cast, the running gag was that the high school's cheerleading squad was far more celebrated than its football team.  However, that movie wasn't part of a notable trend.  I can only hope that the current one -- of taking women seriously without centering their experience around romance -- continues.

Humor.  While Pitch Perfect's overall tone feels fairly generic, it does slip in some good humor around the edges -- whether it is Lilly's whispers -- "I start fires to feel joy" -- or the movie playing with the fact that only a few select characters get any screen time.  "It's like you haven't been here all year long!"  "We've literally been here the whole time!"  Even broader gags, like Aubrey's projectile vomiting, are sometimes played for more subtle laughs (puke angels, anyone?).

Fat Amy is a highlight -- she could have been the endless teller and recipient of fat jokes, but thankfully she was written by someone who actually gave a damn, and played by Rebel Wilson.  So she's coy, flirtatious, sexy, self deprecating.  She talks about her "many boyfriends," and we believe her... even before we see her lounging at a pool with them.  

And yes, I too had Kimmy-Jin as a college roommate.            

The Music.  While I mock Mylie Cyrus, Pitch Perfect does actually showcase some great alternative music.  Such as "Bulletproof" by La Roux, or "Titanium" by David Guetta, neither of which I had heard before.  At least I think they're alternative -- I'm even more clueless about popular music than Aubrey.  But if you think these songs sound good individually, they sound even better mixed together.  Who would have guessed "Bulletproof" could fit so naturally with "I Saw the Sign"?    

The Singing.  Which is pretty damn good.  It had to be, obviously.  Actors like Anna Kendrick (Beca) and Skylar Astin (Jesse) have Broadway backgrounds, and there is not a weak link among the rest of the cast.  It is a joy listening to everyone harmonize so flawlessly, even if Pitch Perfect seems to rely heavily on the trope of people instantly being in sync without having ever practiced the song together.

The Bad

It's Been Done.  That's really my biggest complaint.  Again, there is virtually nothing that you have not seen before.  In addition to the time-worn staples noted above, there are:

1.  The audition filled with oddballs, complete with the alternative chick who succeeds by doing it her own way.


2.  The impromptu sing-off/cheer-off between the rival groups, setting up the tension.

3.  The midpoint performance where the group suffers because they don't yet understand how to be true to themselves.  This may include a moment where it appears they've been eliminated from competition, only to learn -- hooray! -- they made it after all.

4.  The wacky judges and/or announcers!

5.  The male love interest winning the protagonist over with song.  Bonus if the song is used in the final performance.

And going back to the "alternative chick schools the rest of the group": really, Beca is the only one in the group to understand how a mashup works?    

Jesse... Eh.  It really only struck me on the second viewing, but Jesse is kind of... stalkerish.  At one point, Beca even remarks upon it, and we're supposed to be like: "But he just cares about you, Beca!"  But really, she has a point.  He works at the same radio station, is in the rival a capella group, is always finding her and trying to engage her in conversation despite her being less than receptive.  The fact that he's charming, sincere, and seems to care about Beca's interests mostly makes up for it.  But jesus, give her some space.  It doesn't help that I think Jesse is a huge cheeseball, though I'm sure I'm in the minority.      

But It's Free!  One small quibble about the plot that I can't let go: you have free college because of nepotism, Beca!  No student loans or paying tuition.  And you want to just throw that away?  It's four years -- suck it up!    

Conclusion

While Pitch Perfect brings nothing new, it is a fun movie with lots of energetic singing performances, the perfect sort of thing to watch when you're in a down mood.  Other musical movies may have loftier goals, but Pitch Perfect more than manages to succeed in its goal to entertain.


  
Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney ToddMoulin Rouge, The Sound of Music

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray     

 The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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