A capella is having a major pop culture moment right now. A form of singing where the voice is the only instrument, it has burst from the confines of the church to the steps of every college dorm in America. This is no Gregorian chanting, friends. This is sassy shimmies and winking wailing of cheesy radio hits, and it’s been showing up on your TV screen in increasing volume. First there was The Warblers of Fox’s Glee, then the NBC reality a capella competition The Sing-Off. On NBC’s The Office, Andy Bernard’s famed college a capella group Here Comes Treble finally made an appearance this year, with special guest Stephen Colbert. And like a musical version of Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney, a capella has moved from your living room to Tinseltown in the form of the greatest movie of all time, Pitch Perfect.
We realize some of you may think Argo or Lincoln deserves this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. You’d be wrong.
Pitch Perfect stars Anna Kendrick (The Twilight Saga, Up in the Air) as ultra-cool chick Beca, who signals to the audience that she’s a badass via her leather wristlets and ear-spike. Beca heads to fictional Barden College under protest, since all she really wants to do is live in L.A. and be a big music producer (obviously an achievable goal for someone right out of high school). At Barden she stumbles into the “aca-awesome” world of a capella singing. She joins the all-female Barden Bellas, and has a Romeo to her Juliet in the form of Jesse, who is a member of the rival all-male group, The Treblemakers.
The plot revolves around her frustrations with trying to get the girls to sing something more up to date than Ace of Base in order to win the national competition. In the meantime, the boys’ group keeps winning over the judges with “boy”sterous (see what we did there?) renditions of current songs by Ke$ha and Flo-Rida. It’s an epic battle between the sexes and their amazing voices. There’s projectile vomiting, a drive-by burrito attack, a throw-down with an aging men’s barbershop quartet, and a picnic date between Beca and Jesse where they banter about Rocky over juice pouches (swoon!).
If the presence of a Ke$ha song doesn’t already convince you this is the best film of the year, then let us persuade you with the following.
First, the cast is a revelation. Remember the talented Australian actress from Bridesmaids who played Kristen Wiig’s wacky roommate? That’s Rebel Wilson, and she’s our new spirit animal, thanks to her abundant confidence and killer one-liners. The odds are definitely in Elizabeth Banks’ (The Hunger Games, 30 Rock) favor, who not only produces the movie, but also stars as the drunken Erin Andrews-type commentator of the college a capella competition circuit. Relative unknown Ester Dean plays a lesbian power balladeer. You maybe haven’t heard of Dean, but you’ve heard of Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Rihanna’s “What’s My Name,” both of which she cowrote. Finally, Anna Kendrick displays her usual combination of charm and snark, and also a remarkable dexterity with combining Solo Cups and folk songs.
Together, the ensemble has snappy repartee, oddball humor, and of course, gorgeous vocal stylings.
Indeed it’s the music of Pitch Perfect that gets in your head, and then earworms its way to your heart. The finale involves an extended tribute to the music of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. This made our inner eighties teenager feel a rebellious, Judd Nelsonian fistpump thrill along with the main characters. But even if Brat Pack references aren’t your thing, the groups’ renditions of current radio-friendly mashups of Cee-Lo, B.O.B, and David Guetta leave you humming and singing along.
Herein lies a capella’s greatest power – it’s comforting familiarity. Pitch Perfect plays this to the hilt, leaving the audience smiling and wishing there were more singing scenes. It’s the film equivalent of eating at the Olive Garden when Alain Ducasse is cooking next door. But those mass-produced breadsticks are pure carb deliciousness, and you know exactly how they’re going to taste.
We think it’s this aspect of a capella singing that is hallmarking it as a cultural zeitgeist. Frankly, it’s fun to hear performances of songs you already know set to “synchronized lady dancing,” even if you are a total hipster who thrives on watching unknown bands every weekend. In a world of constantly shifting technological, political and social change, singing – one of the oldest forms of human entertainment – is still relevant. And this time, there’s no background instruments or AutoTune to help achieve a particular sound. The talent required to accomplish this mimicry is not inconsiderable; a capella aficionados must know music intimately. Ben Folds, known for his nearly academic approach to music, respected the genre so much that he produced an album of college a capella groups covering his music, and he later appeared as the anti-Simon Cowell judge on The Sing Off. A capella isn’t just audible comfort food; it’s got a wow factor. It takes shrewd skill to craft a synthesized Top 40 hit into a composition played entirely by the human mouth.
The movie and its subject also strikes a chord (har har) because it’s the nature of a capella to be inclusive. The movie emphasizes that as long as you can sing, you’ll find a place where you belong. Awkward and babbling in real life? You’re a smooth rock star on the auditorium stage. They embrace the nerd aspect and they revel in it. Nobody is trying to be cool while belting out Bruno Mars and gyrating in formation while wearing a bathrobe (another hallmark of a capella groups: humorous uniforms). They don’t care if you call them geeks or roll your eyes at their art. They’re having a better time than everyone else in the room because they’re charging confidently into geekdom; and if you can’t sing, you can feel a little piece of that joy if you watch with an open mind. A capella is about walking the line between earnest performance and smirking self-awareness, and Pitch Perfect manages to embody all these pillars of a capella: campy cheese, true wit, gleeful song, and playful intelligence.
In the wake of a contentious election year, political violence and now all this talk about assault weapons and children, Pitch Perfect is like balm to our tired, overly-analytical souls. Refreshingly familiar and slyly un-cool, it’s really the best thing you can do for your ears and mind to finish the year with a smile.
And if all that doesn’t convince you, we leave you this parting shot: There’s a “riff-off” between the groups involving Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”
Pitch Perfect – Oscar material, folks. You heard it here first. Kanye, say it for us: BOOM. Mic drop.
Maryann Dabski and Lauren MacIvor Thompson, both alumnae of the University of Virginia, spent many hours watching college a cappella. Today, they both live in Atlanta where Maryann, who has a Masters in Social Work, is working on a novel and keeps a blog of all things snark at http://mdabski.com. Lauren has a Master’s degree in Public History, and is currently at work on her doctoral thesis in History at Georgia State University.