Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Pitch Perfect 2 is the sequel to one of the most beautiful and rare creatures in this heavily market-researched days, an honest-to-God word of mouth hit. Which makes it the perfect excuse for me to finally catch up with said hit.

The question of how Pitch Perfect managed to become a generational touchstone is one I really shouldn't try to answer, not being a member of the generation in question, but let's spitball anyway. Personally, I think it's the film's universality, at least among the audience sector it has largely succeed in seducing. Not the romantic comedy elements, which are frankly unpersuasive, and not the evergreen girl-power overtones and the celebration of female friendships, which are absolutely persuasive and even elegant. I am referring strictly to the film's subject matter: I'd be willing to believe that there's not a single human being who attended a four-year university in the United States at any point in the 21st Century who didn't attend an a capella concert, or know somebody involved in the a capella scene, or at least know how to avoid the a capella culture on campus like a deadly plague.

And this is the world that Pitch Perfect leaps into, feet first, and with a perfect balance of praise and mockery that is certainly its most distinctive strength and its calling card. This is a movie for everybody who admires the showmanship and dedication of a capella performers, and who considers it one of the highlights of their own life that they are or were part of that same tradition. It's also a movie for everybody who finds a capella tacky and ridiculous, and looks down upon the singers as social misfits clinging to their in-group because nobody else will have them. Impressively, it's not merely both of these things at the same time; it's sometimes both of these things in the span of an individual gag that can be interpreted as either lovingly self-aware or wickedly sarcastic, depending on how generous the viewer is, or how generous they want to credit the filmmakers with being.

It's a pretty remarkable piece of alchemy that gives Pitch Perfect a vivid personality even when it's flopping about at its most miserable and derivative. Honestly, even the teen target audience of the film must be experienced enough to recognise a largely uninterrupted parade of stock tropes when it struts and frets its way across the stage. And particularly when the film curiously inserts an entire scene that finds the main character, Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), curtly dismissing the entire medium of motion pictures as being derivative and maddeningly predictable, either as a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging its own scene-for-scene predictability, or hypocritically trying to forestall the audience's criticism of the same.

Still, familiarity is appealing in its way, and as I've already suggested, Pitch Perfect is a movie that's insistent on being as familiar as possible. So it doesn't really matter that only the most innocent will fail to get way out in front of the story of freshman Beca, arriving at Barden University four months after a disastrous case of projectile vomiting ended the championship run of the all-female Barden Bellas a capella group. Trying to avoid her overly-present father (John Benjamin Hickey), a professor at the university, Beca - who seriously needs to think about changing the spelling of her fucking name, because I've gotten it wrong every time I've typed it out so far - ends up crossing paths with Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the current leaders of the Bellas, trying to whip up enthusiasm among the incoming class. This doesn't appeal much to Beca, even with her naturally clean and tuneful alto voice, but her father manages to push into agreeing to join any club, and the Bellas are as good as any. And thus does Beca, with her passion for producing mash-ups and tweaking sound, run smack into Aubrey's fascistic devotion to the corny traditions of a capella past. Surely there will be no chance for the radical Beca to prove the superiority of her forward-looking attitude, especially not one that involves a competitive championship berth against their archrivals.

Meanwhile, the cute boy Beca works with at the school radio station, Jesse (Skylar Astin), joins those same archrivals, the Treblemakers, the only population of boys at Barden that the Bella members are specific forbidden by club rules from dating. And Beca's rather tetchy disinterest in Jesse would seem to mean that's not a problem at all, and given how acutely the film deflates when it shifts its focus from the dynamics running in all directions between the Bellas, over to its lukewarm romantic plot with its generically meaty looking male lead, it would be better not just for her singing career but for Pitch Perfect itself if she'd just stop speaking to him. But then we'd be out a B-plot.

The film imagines, and I think that a substantial portion of its fanbase agrees, that the star of the show is the music, presented in a copious quantity of performance numbers, choreographed by Aakomon Jones and framed by director Jason Moore with a slick efficiency that undoubtedly resembles a high-end a capella stage performance of the sort that really would win all the a capella awards, but doesn't really stand out in the annals of musical cinema. The singing performances are generally strong-to-great; this was the film where Kendrick redefined herself as a specialist in musicals, and while the demands of this role and these songs don't meaningfully compare to those she essayed in The Last Five Years or Into the Woods, it's very difficult to imagine her landing those movies without the unimpeachable work she showcased her as a singing actress clearing the path. Still, it's hard not to wish for some more energetic staging to go along with the impressive singing; I can't vouch that watching the numbers provides much that simply listening to the soundtrack wouldn't.

No indeed, the real strength of Pitch Perfect lies in its characters, an outlandishly appealing lot even when they're a collection of awkward stereotypes - Aubrey the shrill neurotic control freak; when we alight on Cynthia-Rose the butch African-American lesbian (Ester Dean) and Lilly the inaudible shy and quiet Asian-American (Hana Mae Lee), we've arrived at a place that filmmakers as self-conscious about their progressive representations as Moore and screenwriter Kay Cannon probably should have noticed long before it got to post-production. The actors make it work, though, and so does the film's unflagging generosity, loving its protagonists even when it gets why they're ridiculous. All this culminates in the immediate break-out character Fat Amy, a breezily self-confident Tasmanian immigrant played with unflappable authority by Rebel Wilson in her break-out role. It's the kind of comic performance that you can tell even without having to be told involved a lot of improvisation and spontaneity, providing just enough sharpness at acute angles to the rest of the film that Wilson provides exactly the counterbalance to the overdetermined plotting that the film needs. But this is an ensemble affair; it takes the combined efforts of every Bella, no matter how small the role, to create the film's winning sense of acceptance and community.

It's winning enough that I can even overlook the degree to which, in truth, huge swatches of Pitch Perfect are pretty lousy comedy. It's certainly never fresh: the jokes are almost as easy to predict as the plot beats. John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, a pair of cast-iron comic troupers who can't help but be fun to watch, are stranded as a pair of despicable color commentators hurling passive-aggressive insults at the Bellas, a steal from Best in Show that would be obvious even without Higgins right there reminding us that the earlier film exists; they get laughs out of many of their lines (how could they not, those two?), but the film would certainly be stronger without them. There's a whole elaborate vomiting sequence late in the movie that includes several jokes which would feel indecently crass in a genuine gross-out movie, let alone a sweet-natured character comedy. And so on, and so forth.

Still, there's a lanky, casual attitude going on that makes certain the film is good-humored even when it doesn't have particularly good humor, if you'll forgive an awful turn of phrase. Pitch Perfect manages to be both acerbic and friendly in a way that gives it bite without giving it too much edge - it's a very pleasurable movie, even if those pleasures are on the simple side. And even if they're frequently secondhand. I'm not quite convinced that it comes by its admiring cult fairly, but it's hard to complain when a feel-good movie actually ends up feeling genuinely good, or is so unfussy about celebrating the kinds of friendships that don't show up in movies nearly as often as they should.

Reviews in this series
Pitch Perfect (Moore, 2012)
Pitch Perfect 2 (Banks, 2015)
Pitch Perfect 3 (Sie, 2017)