Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
Some movies are comfort blankets that you cannot help but want to go back to again and again. Sometimes you might even find yourself stopping and watching if you happen across them when they’re being shown on television. The world can be a dark and scary place (and has only gotten scarier in the last few years), and the movies and television series that we love and have probably watched one too many times in the past can become a welcome distraction and a source of escapism from the real world.
Pitch Perfect is one of those films for me. If I happen across it on one of its many screenings on Sky Cinema Comedy or ITV2, I stop and watch it, regardless of where about it is in the run time, staying with it right through to its upbeat conclusion and well-chosen use of Simple Minds’ iconic ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’.
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Inspired by Mickey Rapkin’s book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate a Cappella Glory, the film doesn’t quite get into the gutter of the world of college a cappella competitions in the manner that Rapkin’s non-fiction book manages to, but it gives you a sense of the somewhat intense chaos that can come from trying to make one’s way as a member of a college a cappella group. Some college set films are about trying to get into a sorority or fraternity, some are about trying to get college credit. Pitch Perfect is about trying to sing as brilliantly as you can.
At its heart, Pitch Perfect has the narrative drive of a sports film, although in this case, instead of boxing, baseball or American football, the competition that our beloved lead characters must win is, of all things, an a cappella competition. Our heroes, The Barden Bellas, are plucky and likeable, there are antagonists in the shape of all (toxic) male group The Treblemakers, led by the annoyingly obnoxious Bumper (Adam DeVine), and a hierarchy that doesn’t quite believe in the Bellas, with many believing that they are very much past it. Can they prove everyone wrong? Of course, but the fun is in the journey there, and a lot of it comes with accompanying commentary from two obnoxious commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, to a frequently hilarious degree.
With a script from Kay Cannon and direction from Jason Moore (not to mention Elizabeth Banks on producing duties, and who is very much a key creative force in what has become a franchise by this point), Pitch Perfect very much makes the world it’s focusing on a weirdly funny and singular one, but does so without ever making fun of it or being obnoxious with its depiction. Being a college set film, Cannon’s screenplay plays very much in the realm of a teen film, it just happens to also revel in tropes and cliches of beating the odds in a competition while on its way to that upbeat conclusion, frequently finding much joy in its depiction of female friendship.
Along with Up in the Air, this is perhaps the film that made Anna Kendrick a movie star, and it’s a film that is very much a must-watch for anyone who is a fan of the actress. Has there ever been a moment as brilliantly movie-star making as when Beca plays ‘Cups’ in her audition scene? If I wanted to, I could have just written an entire piece on that scene alone, and why it is one of the most important scenes in the history of modern cinema. I’m joking (kind of), but it is one of those lovely moments dotted around the film that finds lovely alchemy between silly and real, and maybe even with a touch of whimsy.
It’s one of those films that many may scoff at due to its somewhat coarse humour at times (the film opens with a projectile vomiting sequence and then repeats that to OTT effect later), but right from its opening act, it gives audiences one of the great female ensemble casts. Along with Kendrick, this is also the film that pretty much made Rebel Wilson a star, but it also proved a stepping-stone for Brittany Snow and Anna Camp, while Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee and Alexis Knapp are every bit as memorable, particularly Lee as the very, very quiet Lilly.
The story very much uses Beca as a means with which to introduce and explain to audiences the world of collegiate a cappella, finding an equilibrium between quirkiness and intensity that is frequently funny without ever being dismissive. Like so many movies with a musical component, there is much joy to be had just in the art of performing and discovering music, but it also finds its beating heart in the friendships that forms between the Bellas, a component that proved to be very much the bedrock for the zanier sequels.
The main story arc of Kay Cannon’s wonderful screenplay (and from here Cannon would go on to write and direct the equally brilliant Blockers) is in making The Bellas the underdog who must prove themselves by the film’s conclusion, but only if they move on from the past and change things up. It’s the most obvious of story arcs in a way, but the film makes magic out of the whole thing, filtering its narrative through some wonderful comedy and character development.
Being a surprise hit at the box office, Universal Pictures inevitably greenlit two sequels, and a television spin-off is in the works. Elizabeth Banks stepped behind the camera for the second film, which upped the comedy to a considerably more overt degree, but which also proved very funny and successful.
The third film is perhaps the weakest of the bunch (although I was probably a tad too positive when it came out, as indicated by this review) but it still has its moments, and brings the series to a lovely conclusion with its use of Kedrick singing Freedom ’90. Talk and rumours of a fourth film persist any time the cast reunite and post about it on social media, but nothing has happened yet, although given how much Hollywood loves to reboot and relaunch franchises, it’s perhaps inevitable that we’ll get something with the Bellas again in the future.