“Pitch Perfect” is set in one of those movie colleges where students don’t read, don’t study and don’t attend class: they’re far too engrossed in making friends, making out, hanging on the campus and, as in this movie, singing a cappella. Debut director Jason Moore’s bright and sparky, “Glee"-inspired musical comedy, which is a musical in the same way that “School of Rock” was, is set in the fictional Barden University. Here, the art of a cappella is treated with the same fist-pumping enthusiasm and cutthroat rivalry that, say, football is in most schools of higher education. As far as I could tell, the closest anyone gets to a classroom in this institution is when students chill in their dorm rooms. How they expect to get their degrees I do not know.
For the uninformed, a cappella is a musical medium in which music is created vocally rather than with instruments, although I could have sworn I heard some instrumental intrusions in the film’s big finale. Barden U. is part of a fiercely competitive a cappella contest held every year, the real-life NCCA. Commentating at each stage are John Michael Higgins (“Bad Teacher") and Elizabeth Banks (also an executive producer), whose insensitive wise-cracks and wildly inappropriate remarks will remind many of the great Fred Willard as the batty dog show commentator in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “Best in Show.”
Our heroines are The Bellas, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-woman underdogs to crowned champions and “big-headed garbage dirtballs” the Treble Makers (in the activities fair, they taunt passers-by by spontaneously bursting into mockful singsong). The Bellas endured crushing public humiliation the previous year when control-freak group leader Aubrey (Anna Camp, “The Help”) projectile puked on-stage mid-performance (and impressively reached the third row). Looking to finally bag the top prize this year, Aubrey and bubbly co-chief Chloe (Brittany Snow, “John Tucker Must Die”) hold auditions for new members in the assembly room, where a gaggle of social misfits and all-round oddballs come a-singin’ and a-dancin’.
Chief among them is Beca (Anna Kendrick, “End of Watch”), a cynical “alt girl" newly enrolled in Barden. Beca’s forte is seamlessly mashing together individual songs on her laptop to create a whole new track (a talent that comes in handy when The Bellas require a little rejuvenation in their music selection). Her sole reason for auditioning is to get her father off her back: he promises to let her quit college and pursue a music-producing career in L.A. if she embraces an extra-curricular activity and it doesn’t work out. Of course, soon enough she’s fully committed to The Bellas and the contest, and becomes an integral cog in their success.
Her fellow Bella newbies are weird and wonderful, and multicultural. Rising Australian comedy starlet Rebel Wilson (Kristen Wiig’s intrusive roommate in “Bridesmaids”) is Fat Amy, so-called so that, in her words, “twig bitches like you won’t call me it behind my back.” Ester Dean (“Rio”) is Cynthia, who’s the subject of a running gag in which fellow Bellas believe her to be a lesbian. And then there’s Lilly (newcomer Hana Mae Lee), a softly spoken Asian girl whose voice is so low no-one can hear a word she says, let alone sings (how she passed her audition is anyone’s guess).
The film follows The Bellas as they work their way towards the final in New York’s Lincoln Centre, and as Beca falls for Treble Maker nice guy and “The Breakfast Club" fanatic Jesse (Skylar Astin, “Wreck-It Ralph”). Naturally, as the newly assembled Bellas progress, they improve in their harmonies and presentation, although an underground, improvised “riff-off” with the Treble Makers strains believability (think of it as an “8 Mile”-style rap battle but with bubblegum pop tunes).
Moore, nominated for a Tony in 2004 for directing Broadway production “Avenue Q,” adds sparkle and pizazz to the stage-set musical numbers, which flaunt the painstaking choreographic precision of a Michael Jackson video. Kendrick and co. perform with style and energy, each proving they have quite a set of lungs on them, bellowing out both oldies and modern hits, and (thanks to Beca’s music-mixing skills) sometimes both at the same time.
Screenwriter Kay Cannon, who also writes for “30 Rock” and “New Girl,” provides much smart-mouthed snark in the vein of the Tina Fey-scribed “Mean Girls” and presents characters who may be stereotypical but who shine in personality. Giggles are aplenty, but in one notably sickly scene Cannon and Moore overdo the gross-out factor: late in the film, Aubrey’s upset stomach returns with a vengeance, which one character rather unexpectedly uses as an opportunity to make snow angels (yeuch!).
Admittedly, “Pitch Perfect” is pure formula, and it does little to raise it above basic expectations: it slavishly adheres to every cliché in the dog-eared underdog book. What it has in its favour is a winning, unpatronising “girl power" message and a sprightly ensemble cast confidently led by the reliably radiant Miss Kendrick. Stealing the show is the sizzlingly sassy Miss Wilson, who appears to have been given much room to ad-lib (a mid-credits blooper confirms this). As for the a cappella routines, they’re irresistible, toe-tapping stuff: one could almost forgive The Bellas for ignoring their college education.