The secret of a good a cappella performance (besides being able to, you know, sing) is mixing the familiar with the fresh. Take an old standard or a radio hit, spice it up with style and an unexpected arrangement, and you’ve got something special.
The a cappella campus comedy “Pitch Perfect” is certainly familiar — not only could I predict how it was going to end, but I even guessed which song they would perform in the finals. But it’s done with freshness and style, a very funny script and a lot of energy, and turns out to be one of the nicest surprises so far this fall. From the moment the movie opened with an a cappella version of the Universal Pictures theme song, I knew it would be fun.
Props first of all go to Anna Kendrick, known for playing tightly wound overachievers in supporting roles in “Up in the Air” and “50/50,” who settles easily into the lead role of rebellious outsider Beca. With her “Are you kidding me?” smile and darting eyes, she’s an immediately appealing antihero, a DJ wannabe forced by her father to go to college and join an extracurricular group.
Beca falls in with one of the campus a cappella groups, the all-female Bellas. The Bellas were one of the top groups on campus, but after a disastrous (and disgusting) accident at the finals last year, group leaders Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) are having a tough time recruiting new talent this year.
So, in the tradition of every movie from “The Dirty Dozen” to “Revenge of the Nerds” (not to mention the hit television show “Glee”), they assemble a ragtag team of singers, including Beca, a brash Tasmanian named Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), an introvert who barely speaks above a murmur.
Aubrey can’t see that her snooze-inducing traditional arrangements are killing the team’s chances against campus rivals The Treble Makers, and resists Beca’s attempts at freshening up the Bellas by mixing songs and styles together, DJ-style. Beca’s Kevin Bacon, Aubrey’s the preacher, and the group is the town from “Footloose.”
Kay Cannon’s screenplay is really funny, dishing out clever lines to almost everyone in the cast. Wilson, best known for her small role in “Bridesmaids,” gets the biggest share of the laughs, but everybody in the cast is on their game. Especially funny are Elizabeth Banks (one of the film’s producers) and John Michael Higgins as a cappella color commentators; Banks says her old all-female college group was called The Minstrel Cycles.
First-time director Jason Moore expertly blends the comedy with the musical performances, from elaborately choreographed stage performances to an energetic back-alley “riff-off” in which rival groups try to top each other with song references.
Obviously, “Gleeks” and other fans of a cappella singing will flock to “Pitch Perfect,” but the movie is well-made and ingratiating enough to win over non-believers. And if that, in turn, gets new fans out to see some of UW-Madison’s fine a cappella groups like Tangled Up in Blue or MadHatters, that’s even better.