The Film: Pitch Perfect (2012)
The Principles: Jason Moore (Director). Anna Kendrick. Skylar Astin. Brittany Snow. Anna Camp. Rebel Wilson.
The Premise: Becca (Kendrick) is a college freshman who’d rather be in a recording studio than college. A talented mash-up artist, her dream is to head out to LA and give the West Coast a run for its money. Only problem is that her dad – a professor at said college – is procuring her a free education and won’t give her his blessing to ditch and head out west unless she gives it the old (ahem) college try for one full year. So, in an effort to show him she’s taking it seriously, she joins The Barden Bellas; an all-girl acapella vocal group still trying to recover from the shame of having blown it (literally, sort of) at last season’s Big Competition.
Is It Good: It’s actually pretty fucking great, which may come as a surprise to some people (it certainly did to me). On paper it comes across like some sort of GLEE cash-in and the trailer made it look about as irritating as “GLEE cash-in” sounds. And it seems like Moore (making his feature-film debut) knew that too, because it really feels like he made a pointed effort to walk a really fine line between being self-aware and being straight-forward and genuine. There’s a scene early in the movie where Becca is being recruited by Bellas Cloe and Aubrey (Snow and Camp, respectively) and her reaction to the entire affair is basically “lolwut?” And that’s an important step in establishing an arc, not only for Becca, but for the movie and – on a sort of meta level – the audience as well. Moore knows that the majority of us don’t have any previous exposure or attachment to the whole acapella thing, so by putting all of us in that sort of amused-but-ultimately-too-cool-for-this position right up front (and letting us laugh a bit at the people who take this shit super seriously), he gives us a chance to get close to it naturally, by letting the music do what it does. And as such, by the end, when we are expected to take it seriously, it’s something that’s been earned.
And earned it certainly is. The talent is on display from the get-go, but Moore doesn’t really pull the cord and let shit start up in earnest until the Riff-Off scene, which is designed to be the moment that all of us (audience and Becca alike) completely get on board with what’s happening and let ourselves have a stake in it all. And once the self-awareness fades away from the music scenes it leaves room for a genuine momentum that builds all the way through to the final two performances. And they’re electric.
It’s also somewhat progressive, and not just with hollow surface gestures. Wilson’s line about calling herself Fat Amy “so you twig bitches don’t do it behind my back” strikes a chord that everyone can hear, but when her character succeeds on stage (and off), her weight is the last thing on anyone’s mind. A lot of characters in that position would have been subjected to body-shaming in the name of humor, but Fat Amy’s fat is just one part of a whole character, as opposed to the defining element.
In fact, the film makes a point to touch on a lot of feminist ideas. There’s a strong wave of sexual liberation in our female characters that’s never held up as something that needs to be challenged or changed or punished. It casually thumbs its nose at the gender binary on both sides of the spectrum. There’s even a brief commentary on rape culture (perhaps too brief as it’s confined to one throwaway joke that stings – intentionally – but is left behind just as quickly).
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of all of this is the conflict between traditionalist femininity and modern feminism that’s projected primarily onto Aubry and Becca’s characters, but ends up spreading out to the Bellas as a group. The visual shorthand (their wardrobes) is a bit on the nose, but the dynamic is there and the film manages to express its ideas in full and stand itself up as having something relevant to add to the conversation. And its relevancy is only helped by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, who play the color commentators for each of the competition scenes. Their time on-screen is short, but it’s sharp and funny.
The only problem with all of these things is that they help to shine a spotlight on the glaringly problematic gross-out humor. There’s one scene involving a running joke about Aubry’s nervous, uncontrollable vomiting that is so out of place that it feels like it was shoehorned into the script by someone who didn’t bother to actually read it. It’s still rather baffling that a film that made such a concerted effort to be as thoughtful as it was could miss the mark on that by such a wide margin. But even so, a shitty detour still ends up taking you where you wanna go, and this isn’t any different. But it is a really, really shitty detour.
Is It Worth A Look: Without a doubt. And surprisingly, if my Facebook feed is any indication, a lot of you have already given it a look. I half-expected there to be a bit of a resistance once I started singing (hur hur) its praises. But really, if you like music; if you like energetic, kinetic filmmaking; even if you just have a crush on any one of our cast members (and they’re pretty much all crushable), you’re going to find something to enjoy here.
Random Anecdotes: I kind of love Brittany Snow, but I’ve only ever seen her support and I can’t help but wonder if she has it in her to carry an entire film. Has she ever led? How was it?
Cinematc Soulmates: Oh hell there’s 1,000 musical performance movies out there. Take your pick!