Football? Baseball? Bull riding? Oh, sure, they can be (stifled yawn) nice diversions on a fall afternoon, assuming there's nothing better to do. But if you want real action, real tension, real grind-your-opponent's-face-in-the-ground-and-laugh-with-sinister-glee rivalry, you must dive into the cutthroat world of competitive a cappella singing.
Don't believe me? According to an unnamed scholar I almost talked to for this review, the world of a cappella has always been a rough one. Gregorian monks have for centuries challenged nearby monasteries to chant-offs. Barbershop quartets in the 1950s would thwack one another with their handlebar mustaches. Why, these rivalries can be so intense as to make the bravest of singers treble with fear. I'm sure if you met an a cappellist on the street, he/she would tell you tales which would make your very stanzas curl.
Alas, Beca does not understand the peril these a cappella chorales can encounter. Even when she starts college, the presence of four Glee-style groups fails to tip her off. She thinks it's nothing more than "organized nerd singing," and when the Barden Bellas ask her to join, she brushes off the offer like so much dandruff.
In fairness, she'd react much the same way for any collegiate club. For this aspiring deejay, college is an unfortunate detour on her way to becoming rich and famous—a full stop forced by her father. Beca plans to spend the next four years as if she were in cryogenic hibernation: cold, stiff and lifeless.
But when her dad tells her that if she really commits to college for one year—and shows her commitment by joining something, anything—he'll let her leave early and move to Los Angeles. And when she sings an impromptu duet with a Barden Bella in the communal shower, well, she decides to give the Bellas a ca-chance.
Little does she know that the group's not merely asking for her vocal chords: It's asking for her mind, her heart, her very soul. Nothing but unwavering devotion will suffice when you trill for the Bellas.
Perhaps I've been a touch misleading in my introductory remarks. The Barton Bellas do require a lot of dedication, but it's not exactly a cultish chorale: It's more like a makeshift family.
That's a big deal for Beca, who has trouble connecting with her real family at times. Though her father seems nice and supportive, Beca pushes him away with something close to disgust. And when a guy named Jesse begins to court her, Beca ferociously tears into him with every least bit of provocation. She can't get close to anyone, even storming away from the Bellas when Aubrey, the group's leader, scolds her for going off-script.
But with the help of the Bellas and Jesse and her dad—the very folks Beca's treated poorly at times—she slowly learns to trust the people around her. She patches things up with everyone, and she discovers that college—and the friendships created therein—can actually be worth the trouble.
She's not the lone Bella to find a connection. The group's misfits all learn to accept and like one another, and even the Bellas' high-strung leader earns a measure of redemption and affection. Amy, who calls herself Fat Amy, sums up the character of the group like this: While their bodies may be skinny, "You all have fat hearts, and that's what matters."
Riffing on a spiritual slogan, a sign on the college campus reads, "A cappella is my co-pilot." Amy goads a girl by talking about "God punishing you because you're a ginger." We see a couple of students wearing yarmulkes and hear Amy talk about her Orthodox Jew haircut.
These a cappella competitions aren't just about singing. There're also about dancing, with some of the moves falling into the bawdy/suggestive category. One oversexed Bella is particularly fond of running her hands over her breasts and toward her crotch, but she's far from the only one guilty of suggestively touching or gesturing to certain areas of their bodies. Amy, during one dance number, rips open her shirt to reveal the undergarment beneath.
Lyrics, too, can stray—particularly during one "riff-off" where contestants are asked to sing songs explicitly about sex. The tunes range from Foreigner's "It Feels Like the First Time" to Rihanna's "S&M," which includes the lyrics, "Sticks and stones may break my bones/But chains and whips excite me."
Beca is solicited for the group while taking a shower. We see shoulders and backs; we hear discussion about covering "junk." Leader Aubrey initially hopes to sign on "super-hot girls in bikini-ready bodies." A woman's nipples (comedically enlarged) are visible under her shirt. We see girls in bikinis and guys in Speedo-style shorts.
One of the Bellas is a stereotypical lesbian who sometimes ogles or inappropriately touches her fellow singers. Another singer is known for her promiscuity. And much is made of Beca being visibly attracted to a guy in a rival group. Three of the girls are kicked out for sleeping with them.
Many more references are made to either having sex and not having sex. We hear about herpes, body parts, confused sexuality and "sluts." Beca is given a rape whistle when she arrives on campus. "Don't blow it unless it's actually happening," she's told. A girl's breasts are (lightly) punched. A female announcer says of an all-female a cappella group, "Those girls could turn me."
After a competition, one quartet challenges rival singers to a fight. When they skirmish, Beca gets involved and hits somebody in the face. Her victim begs for more, and then is kicked in the crotch by somebody else and threatened with a violent act involving a trophy and his nether regions. (Again, the guy seems to like the idea.) The trophy breaks apart in the struggle; part of it crashes through a window.
Most of the Bellas get into another fight. Amy's hit with a burrito.
Crude or Profane Language
A half-dozen or more s-words. A group sings "F U Very Much." A variety of other curses include "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is abused six or eight times; Jesus' name is abused thrice. Someone flips a middle finger.
Drug and Alcohol Content
One of the a cappella groups is known as The High Notes. They're unmotivated. They lounge a lot. And a member is tossed from a sing-off after blanking out during a song—deemed an example of the "negative side effect of medicinal marijuana." Amy compares a guy's offer of a kiss to doing crystal meth—as in, both are bad.
Young adults get drunk at a party, many of them presumably underage. "I'm not drunk," Jesse insists to Beca. "You're just blurry." He then staggers to get Beca something to drink too. Someone says bad singing makes his beer taste bad (while holding said beer).
Other Negative Elements
Aubrey is prone to projectile vomiting. She does so during a critical performance (a scene replayed on YouTube) and does so again during a tense standoff, spewing everywhere in a rehearsal room. The vomit's so thick one Bella begins doing "snow angels" in it.
Lilly, a soft-spoken Bella, whispers bizarre things under her breath, confessing at one juncture that she ate her twin in the womb. An announcer shows some comically misogynist tendencies. Another says she was once part of an a cappella group called The Minstrel Cycles. A would-be magician admits to having kept an animal trapped in a piece of his wardrobe for several days. A Barden Bellas initiation ceremony involves "drinking the blood of the sisters who have come before." (It's not real blood.) A girl with a self-described gambling problem plays poker.
Insults from a group of frat guys trade on issues of the girls' weight and overall "attractiveness."
Pitch Perfect, alas, falls far short of its title in nearly every area except one: the music.
OK, so maybe the music isn't perfect in an angels from heaven sort of way. But it's quite good if you're into this sort of singing on the human plane. And (full disclosure) I am.
But here's the thing: Because of the great music, this movie feels nicer and more innocent than it is.
Granted, it's not Grease—an aptly-named musical wherein eminently singable, danceable songs hide a pervasive, corrosive decadence. The morals here—embrace the people in your life, don't squander opportunity, sing a little—are better than that. But while its overarching messages aren't awful, the film loses its way amid all the quarter notes. Take the vibe and demeanor as a complete song, and you might feel pretty good about it. But chop the thing into measures, and almost every one is problematic. We hear a swear word here, see a lewd gesture there, slip in a pool of vomit directly in front of us, smack into sexual banter in a trill of low notes.
Yeah, there are some great numbers here—performances that can tease a smile out of the more curmudgeonly of us, songs that might set our heads a-bobbing and our toes a-tapping. But in the end the movie's musical numbers and "fat heart," as Amy might say, isn't enough. Pitch Perfect is just too off-key.