‘Pitch Perfect’: Familiar melody

September 26, 2012


Occasionally, two studios make the same movie and then try to be the first to release their version. It’s less common for the same year to produce two different films with almost identical storylines. But then, the plot for “Pitch Perfect” was old long before this year.

So it’s just a coincidence that “Pitch Perfect” has the same essential arc as “Joyful Noise” earlier this year. That film, which brought us the inevitable teaming of Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah, and “Pitch Perfect” are both about competitive choral work, with conflict focused on the battle between tradition and innovation.

Old-fashioned versus new-fangled – the eternal struggle. And it’s been more interestingly told before than it is in “Pitch Perfect,” Jason Moore’s by-the-numbers musical comedy.

Where “Joyful Noise” was about church choirs trying to be more melodic than thou, “Pitch Perfect” is about college-level competitive a cappella singing – the kind that’s always elbowing college football for airtime on Saturday afternoons in the fall.

Yes, it’s the same approach as on “Glee”: a cappella reworkings of inane pop songs (Kelly Clarkson’s name is invoked as though it is to be taken seriously), set to Broadway-musical-style choreography.

The film focuses on the rivalry between two nationally ranked groups from the same private college, mythical Barden. The Barden Bellas are the always-frustrated runners-up to their male counterparts, the Treble Makers. After a particularly humiliating experience at the finals at Lincoln Center (involving projectile vomiting), Aubrey (Anna Camp), the head of the Bellas, vows to take her troupe to the championship the next year.

But the pickings are slim among new recruits and she can’t field a group that looks like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Instead, she winds up initiating a black lesbian, an overweight Australian who calls herself Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and a sex-crazed future Hooters waitress, among others.

They also somehow hook cool-girl Beca (Anna Kendrick, slumming), a freshman with a great voice and a bad attitude. They keep calling her alt-girl, though she spends her time using her laptop to mix beats and create mash-ups of overproduced contemporary pop – like Kelly Clarkson. And she, of course, is the one who tries to introduce the group to new material (back to Blackstreet, forward to Bruno Mars), in hopes of winning that championship.

There are conventions to these films that are puzzling. Consider the group’s ability to spontaneously harmonize and arrange voices on a song the women have not prepared (in the “Riff-off,” a capella’s answer to rap’s freestyling competition). Apparently it’s as common as the Vulcan mind-meld.

And then there’s the fact that this is an a cappella competition. Yet somehow, when these groups perform on a stage at Lincoln Center, there are magically musical instruments backing them on the soundtrack.

The script by Kay Cannon doesn’t stop there, but the rest doesn’t bear discussion. You’ve seen “Pitch Perfect” before and you’ll see it again. There’s no need to see it now.

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