The fizzy and exuberant cinematic confection called Pitch Perfect fits its title. This broad comedy about collegiate a cappella groups—made up of 8 or 10 kids who sing entirely without accompaniment and use their voices as their instruments—manages to be amusingly cartoonish and sweetly heartfelt at the same time.
The movie takes the name of Mickey Rapkin’s 2008 nonfiction book and a few facts from it—girl groups have a disadvantage with competition judges because while men can sing falsetto, women cannot do the same with a bass line—but is otherwise entirely a fictional invention.
We follow the progress of one such girl group, the Barden Bellas, as they attempt to recover from a disaster that occurs during the national finals at Lincoln Center, the scene that opens the movie. Aubrey, their very driven leader—“my dad always says, if you’re not here to win, get the hell out of Kuwait”—is wound so tight that she literally loses her lunch as she hits the high note of her solo.
The following fall at Barden University, the Bellas are trying to recruit new talent so they can make it back to the finals and defeat their nemesis, the prize-winning all-male Treblemakers. The signature of the Bellas is that they dress like 1960s stewardesses and all have hot “bikini-ready bods.” But Aubrey’s freakout (with 200,000 hits on YouTube) has so damaged the group’s reputation that she is forced to accept anyone who will join. The new Bellas include a young Asian woman who looks like an anime character and doesn’t speak above a whisper; a sex-crazed ballerina; an African-American lesbian addicted to gambling; and a blowsy Tasmanian import who calls herself “Fat Amy” so that “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.”
The movie’s protagonist is Beca (Anna Kendrick of Up in the Air), a cynical loner who only joins the Bellas at the behest of her professor father. Pitch Perfect is about how Beca, crushed by her parents’ terrible divorce, slowly thaws and finds friendship and purpose by joining up with the Bellas and falling for Jesse, a rival Treblemaker.
But screenwriter Kay Cannon and director Jason Moore, both of whom make sensational big screen debuts with this movie, never let the proceedings get too heavy or Afterschool Special-y. Pitch Perfect has the wild highs of a 1980s John Hughes movie (which it deliberately invokes with a shout-out to The Breakfast Club) while avoiding Hughes’s propensity to flatter his teen audience’s overwrought pretensions and pseudo-angst. Cannon and Moore keep a satirical distance from the world they’re portraying.
The Treblemakers, we’re told, are the superstars of a cappella, but they’re still just socially hapless kids with wanna-be hip-hop dance moves. (We get a glimpse of what their future is likely to be when three potbellied, T-shirted veterans in their forties show up at a competition to relive their glory days and try to get into a sing-off.) And yet, when they or the Bellas start to sing, the effect is infectious, cheering, and even quite moving.
Kendrick is terrific in what you might call the distaff Judd Nelson role here, as is Skylar Astin, who plays her love interest, Jesse. Both of them are Broadway veterans: Kendrick was rightly nominated for a Tony when she appeared in an otherwise awful stage version of the Cole Porter movie-musical High Society; Astin starred in the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. When they sing (as when they don’t sing), they are both winning and remarkably without affect; they are what keeps the movie minimally grounded in reality.
But the breakout performance—and the one that best reflects this movie’s amazing balancing act between the satirical and the celebratory—is by Anna Camp, previously unknown to me. As the gorgeous and determined Aubrey, Camp somehow manages to find the humanity in a character who speaks in ludicrous clichés and might, in lesser hands, have come across as a plastic, type-A, control-freak monster.
That descent into feeble caricature could have been true of Pitch Perfect as a whole, since it has indeed been the fatal flaw of Glee, the television show whose success made this film possible. But while Pitch Perfect follows in the footsteps of Glee’s undeniably thrilling use of mashups of contemporary songs warbled by vibrant young musical talents, it does not have that show’s toxic sense of disdain for its own characters—or its repugnant misogyny. Pitch Perfect is not a great movie by any means: It has too many dangling plotlines, for one thing, and it’s just a mite too silly. But it’s great fun, and that’s more than enough.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.