Walk the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, and you can barely find a block where a street musician isn’t belting out some jazzy tune on his trumpet or clarinet.
But an entirely different kind of music scene was playing out just 80 miles north in Baton Rouge last October. Here, on the 132-year-old campus of Southern University, a troupe of talented actors and vocalists assembled to film Pitch Perfect, the definitive comedy film on the subject of “a cappella,” the art of singing without instrumental back-up.
In the movie, the recently disgraced, all-girl collegiate a cappella group known as the Barton University Bellas is forever changed when rebellious and aloof outsider Beca (Anna Kendrick) joins the team and tries to shake things up with some fresh sounds and edgy remixes.
A cross between Glee, The Sing-Off and comedy films in the vein of Bring it On, Pitch Perfect unabashedly celebrates a performance art that, well, might seem a little nerdy at first, until you actually hear it. Considering that several numbers drew actual applause from audience members during a recent screening of the film, it wouldn’t be surprising if a cappella clubs suddenly experience an influx of wannabe crooners when the movie officially opens October 5.
Co-producer Max Handelman is one such a cappella convert. “I remember vividly in college thinking they were just a bunch of nerds,” said Handelman, referring to a cappella performers. “But I remember being dragged to show at one point and seeing how these kids, particularly the guys, were rock stars… [within] their own subculture. It’s the notion of superstars in your own little world.”
Handelman’s wife and fellow producer Elizabeth Banks, who plays an outrageously uncensored color commentator in the film, believes this is what makes this film so universally appealing: “I think people are drawn to aspirational stories. This is a story about nerdy girls becoming rock stars.”
Alas, as a former high-school show choir and a cappella performer myself, I never quite achieved that “Rock God” status. But I must admit, when I and a few other select journalists got the opportunity to visit the film on location and watch the actors perform live on stage, for a few fleeting moments I yearned to relive my halcyon days by climbing up on stage and joining the chorus. (Fortunately, I resisted.)
For starters, I was treated to a rocking performance by the Barton Treblemakers, a cocky, freewheeling, all-boys group who serve as the Bellas’ chief competition in the movie. Over several takes, I watched of a rousing rendition of Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” replete with funky, high-energy choreography and teenaged hijinks.
The leader of the Treblemakers is a brash senior who goes by the nickname Bumper — played by Adam DeVine, the 27-year-old comedian and actor best known for his role on Workaholics. Coming in with no previous musical experience, the learning curve for DeVine was as steep as anyone’s.
DeVine was particularly concerned about his singing at first. “I knew I could at least dance funny, so if I couldn’t do the move I could at least flail my body to make it look like I’m doing something,” said DeVine. “But singing you can’t fake.”
When his initial attempts at singing sounded a bit too much like screechy caterwauling, DeVine consulted a vocal coach, who managed to straighten out his technique in just one 30-minute session. (The lesson: sing from down in your diaphragm, not up in your head.)
So does that mean there won’t be any auto-tuning of DeVine in the movie?
“They said they didn’t, but maybe they totally did,” said DeVine. “They might have just said that to be nice to me.”
DeVine’s co-star Skylar Astin, who plays Beca’s love interest Jesse, arrived with a more distinguished musical pedigree, having starred in the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. Yet he claims that DeVine is every bit his equal on the stage.
“He literally kills it every single time. If he told you that he’d been doing this his whole life, you’d believe him,” praised Astin.
For Astin, this movie was a fantasy come true. “I’m living out such a dream right now doing it, not only because a cappella is really fun, but there’s a boy band element to a cappella, especially the stuff that we’re doing. So all the ’90s boy bands that I was listening to and trying to be like so I could get all the girls, I’m now assuming that role,” he said.
Skyler recalled attending NYU for a semester and being blown away by the school’s a cappella clubs. “It was so interesting to me how something that can be perceived as silly or offbeat [was] actually be perceived as rock stars,” he said. “These people were so cool. Everybody went crazy for them. All the dudes got laid and all the girl laughed at all their jokes. They were literally like the football team in high school.”
Adam got a taste of the rock-star treatment himself. “We shot this scene where it was my big song and dance number,” said DeVine. “It was ‘Please Don’t Stop the Music’ by Rihanna. And I’m singing the whole thing, but I’m super intense about it and I’m just gyrating and there are all these girls up front. And they’re acting, but they’re freaking out and immediately I’m like: ‘I should join an a cappella group! This is amazing!’ But then they call ‘Cut!’”
Next to take the stage was Sockappella, a goofy troupe of co-ed entertainers who used sock puppets to perform their musical number, “F*** You” by Lily Allen. And what better way to cap off such a ridiculous routine than a big old middle-finger salute?
This routine bore all the hallmarks of the film’s irreverent director Jason Moore, best known for being the directorial force behind the hit Sesame Street parody musical, Avenue Q. But while this performance elicited plenty of chuckles, the casting process behind the entire film was very serious business, especially considering the need for dozens of singers and dancers.
The producers of Pitch Perfect cast their net into a diverse talent pool comprised of a mix of established stars, fresh-faced Hollywood neophytes, and Louisiana locals. In fact, “The local kids, who basically have no acting experience at all, in many ways are carrying the groups from a performance standpoint,” said Handleman.
“We were really looking for unusual, quirky people who came in and made us laugh,” said Banks.
“I would say 90 percent of the women [who auditioned] sang Adele and if wasn’t Adele, it was Lady Gaga,” said Handelman. But then others immediately separated themselves from the pack, like relative newcomer Hana Mae Lee, who plays the quiet and quite possibly insane character Lilly.
“Hana Mae Lee walked in and sang a Korean folk song, in Korean, facing the wall,” Handelman recalled. It was a no-brainer: She was a keeper.
Producer Paul Brooks believes that the surplus of talent witnessed at the auditions are a direct result of the resurgence of musical competitions like American Idol over the last decade. “This whole new television landscape, with the new versions of these talent shows… it’s made people who maybe are talented but didn’t feel… confident enough to actually go on these auditions, I think now they’re like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go on these auditions.” I’m convinced that’s what’s happened,” said Brooks.
I made my way back into the theater one last time to finally catch a glimpse of the beautiful Bellas, anchored by a strong female cast that includes Kendrick, Brittany Snow and Anna Camp.
At this point in the script, the Bellas were still suffering under the tragically unhip and stodgy reign of senior member Aubrey (Camp) and her tired collection of outdated songs. Which meant, unfortunately, that I was not going to see the girls performing at the top of their game.
“It’s supposed to be in the beginning where we’re kind of uptight and not really reaching our potential,” apologized Kendrick, whose musical theater background no doubt came in handy during the shoot. “So it’s kind of embarrassing to do it again and again and know that it’s supposed to be kind of bad.”
The other notable thing about their routine: really painful shoes. “Oh my God, I want to murder our costume designer,” joked Kendrick.
The girls opened with Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” then quickly segued into The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” all the while performing intentionally banal choreography, the kind my old chorus teacher used to call “Theater for the Deaf” because the dance moves would often be a very literal interpretation of the lyrics.
But then, something wild and unexpected happens. The brazenly shameless character Fat Amy (you read that right), played by Aussie actress Rebel Wilson, who easily steals the show in this movie, breaks into an uninhibited, raunchy rendition of “Turn the Beat Around,” sending the crowd into a frenzy and potentially saving the Bellas from an early exit from the competition.
Though her character is initially cold to the concept of a cappella, believing it’s incredibly lame, Kendrick herself admitted to being quite fond of this musical style. “This made me feel pretty nerdy when I came into this,” Kendrick acknowledged. “It reminded me that I totally dig this kind of thing.”
“It’s actually really cool, though,” interjected Snow.
“But that’s what I mean,” Kendrick retorted. “The fact that we think it’s cool, that’s not good.”
Not true, Anna. After all, even R&B/hip-hop singer-songwriter Ester Dean has come to fully embrace the art of a cappella. Dean, known for her single “Drop It Low” with Chris Brown, plays the character Cynthia Rose, who is apparently attracted to just about every girl in the Bellas.
“You learn to appreciate it because it’s super hard… Harder than any song I ever wrote,” said Dean, who added that she plans to use the various a cappella vocal techniques that she picked up during the shoot in future compositions.
“Just by being here, I realized I’ve only used ‘na nas’ and ‘oohs and ahs,’ and now I’m going into my sessions and doing ‘dit dit,’ and using tones and tensions that I would never use, just because I got to be a part of this world,” said Dean.
As a former “choir boy” myself, I was happy to be part of that world as well, if only for a day. Even if I never did get to sing.
* Brad Barth was a guest of Universal during this set visit.
* Check out this Pitch Perfect Facebook character art, featuring Aubrey, played by Anna Camp!
* More Pitch Perfect content and art can be found at the following sites…
* For more on Pitch Perfect, like the movie on its Facebook page.