Monday, October 15, 2012

Please Don't Stop the Music

How many times in the past year have we been subjected to attempts to recapture the magic that was Bridesmaids? The fem-semble take of a Judd Apatow production was not just a great film, but also an extremely popular one, grossing (and that is the right word) $288 million and earning itself a ton of Oscar buzz in the process. Since then, we've seen some decent stories that have tried to match that movie's blend of feminine camaraderie and raunchy humor, but neither Bachelorette nor Friends with Kids had much mainstream appeal, and Bridesmaids now threatens to be an exception of fem-first comedies rather than a rule.

On the surface, it doesn't appear that Pitch Perfect would be the type of movie to talk about as a spiritual successor to last summer's blockbuster, considering how much their promotional material is a blatant copy. But I think this one has the chance to surprise you. For example, preconceived notions of the film's goody-two-shoes nature last about five minutes, after which you will see exactly how I drew this comparison. Pitch Perfect takes a seemingly innocent topic - the rise of a capella (non-instrumental vocal music) as competition and community in college - and absolutely goes crazy with it, resulting in a movie you likely will never see coming.

Surrounded by women is not a bad way to go through college.
Socially-withdrawn Beca (Anna Kendrick) doesn't want to go to college. The aspiring music producer and talented sound mixer knows exactly what she wants to do with her life: move to Los Angeles and begin paying her dues as a producer. Her father insists she get a college education however, and gets her admitted to the school at which he teaches, hoping that she will find something in her peers that inspires her. Beca at first rejects the idea that campus life holds anything of value for her, as boys and classes have nowhere near the draw for her that music does. Things change when she is heard singing and begged to join a capella group "The Bellas", who are desperate to win the regional championships after an embarrassing end to the previous season. Beca's contemporary beats and the traditional style of senior member Aubrey (Anna Camp) fail to mesh, and the other young ladies chafe under Aubrey's strict leadership, but the Bellas still manage to put together a competitive group that is on the road to reach the finals. But will the tension break the group - and everyone's musical aspirations - before the final curtain is drawn?

Oh, no it's Mormons... look the other way, look the other way...
I don' t know about you, but my experience with a capella growing up was restricted to PBS's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, whose theme song was performed by quartet Rockapella and for the longest time was my only connection to the music style. What Pitch Perfect re-introduced to me was not just a capella itself, but how good an ELITE team could be in performance. And this movie does well by it's soundtrack, from the all-vocal rendition of Universal Pictures' opening credits to wonderful performances of classic tunes to excellent mash-ups including one of Bruno Mars' 'Just the Way You Are' and Nelly's 'Just a Dream'. These represent some of the best the film has to offer, as the emotional and professionally-done performances draw you in and force you to discover the glee (no pun intended) you get from watching.

As if with a name like 'Treblemakers' they could be any less than rivals.
I remember being told that in order to make it as an actor, you have to be a lot more than just an actor. Often the best actors have a multitude of secondary talents, whether they be singing, dancing or juggling. Often these talents can lend themselves to aspects of their performances, and multifaceted performers can simply do more. For instance, I never knew that Anna Kendrick was the third-youngest Tony award nominee at age 12 for her work in Broadway musical High Society. The Up in the Air and 50/50 actress was already among the best up-and-coming performers of the past few years, and her multi-tiered role here is a a strangely perfect compliment to her career so far. But beyond Kendrick is a surprisingly deep pool of talent. Promotions may have focused almost exclusively on "Fat Amy", played by Bridesmaids' Rebel Wilson, and the Australian actress certainly does her part in sowing chaos as the brutally honest, free-thinking international vocalist. But while Wilson is perfect, the film's heart is not unjustly heaped on her shoulders. There is also Brittany Snow as Chloe, the Bellas' other senior member who tries to mitigate Aubrey's iron fist. Skylar Astin, Alexis Knapp, Ben Platt, musician Ester Dean and Hana Mae Lee provide tons of entertainment, with Lee perhaps the sleeper of the bunch. Adam DeVine provides an effective - albeit unnecessary - face to the Bellas' problems as a rival group leader. And duo John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who was also a co-producer) provide hilarious commentary during the competition scenes; Higgins is a hilariously misogynistic Regis Philbin while Banks is... well... Kathy Lee. In a comedic sense, it works perfectly; both are immensely well-used, but thankfully don't play any larger a role in the film than they need to.

The biggest thing to come out of Twilight?
Great music, good acting, great heart... it might seem like a cliche, but Pitch Perfect actually does turn out to be the feel-good film of the year. It's not without minor glitches; rookie director Jason Moore and screenwriter Kay Cannon try a little too hard to work the words "pitch" and "a capella" into jokes and puns that are far less entertaining than the bulk of the film's humor. Still, Moore's amateur style actually works better for this type of film than a more polished effort, and makes Pitch Perfect feel scrappy and earnest. Cannon also shows some potential, and might inspire me to start watching her TV series New Girl as a result. If you even remotely like musicals, college comedies, and a humor range that spans the gap between gross-out and brilliant, then this is most definitely your jam. If you're even remotely on the fence, do yourself a favor and give this one a try. I promise it won't be quite what you expect.

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