“Pitch Perfect” has a difficult legacy. It’s a wonderful, hilarious, and empowering film that by all accounts should have been an offensive fail. Ten years on, its flaws are more obvious than ever, but it also stands out as a triumph of late-2000s comedies.
The biggest weakness in “Pitch Perfect” is its laziness. There’s a misogynistic radio host, and that’s the entire joke. Consistently, there is a reliance on harmful stereotypes in constructing characters who are racial minorities or queer. All in all, this should culminate in a really redundant, stale, and derivative rom-com, but somehow it gets two things really, really right.
First, “Pitch Perfect” is not a musical. All of the music is diegetic; it’s actually happening in real time for the characters. They don’t wail and dance about their feelings; they yell at each other like contemporary people in the real world. But in addition to the great vocal performances and iconic cover choices, the music is a great vehicle for the plot. The a cappella group the Barden Bellas sound discordant when they are struggling to mesh as a group. Their use of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “S&M” in the Riff Off are iconic even today, and deftly establish the world and community of a cappella in the film. The audition scene is particularly spectacular for this: The rendition of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” holds up today while also doing an incredible amount of legwork to establish all of the minor characters and the role of a cappella on this college campus. The music adds another dimension to what would otherwise be a college comedy, creatively providing an avenue to express the characters’ feelings and growth, as well as being engaging in its own right.
Secondly, “Pitch Perfect” successfully utilizes an unlikeable protagonist to create a story about female solidarity and kinship. The protagonist Beca, played by Anna Kendrick, sucks. She’s obnoxious, self-centered and judgemental. She’s sullen about getting a free college education because she’s mad at her dad for not funding her real dream, which is to head to L.A. by herself with no plans. She looks down on other characters for having interests and caring about things, and only deigns to join the Barden Bellas because her dad makes her. Because she’s the super special protagonist, co-head of the Bellas, Chloe (Brittany Snow), desperately wants her to join. Though she has some valid criticisms of Bella traditions, her refusal to participate and engage means she can’t have a positive impact on the group.
Yet, after self-destructing all of her relationships, Beca is made to reckon with her attitude and also her actions. She admits that she cares about something and that she wants to be a part of this group. And after everything, the revelation is simple: She’s just like other girls. Once Beca gets over herself and respects her friends and the institution she wants to belong to, she’s able to positively contribute and help lead the Bellas into the future.
But more than that, despite the toxicity that makes their relationships so compelling, the female characters care about each other as people. Yes, unfortunately this is a notable bar. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors — and passes the reverse Bechdel test too. Despite having a romantic subplot, the focus is still on the dysfunctional, fun, and complex relationships between these women who love to sing. Thanks to the music, and the unapologetic focus on a group of young women engaging in an off-beat niche that they happen to love, there is a substance to this film that is just lacking in a lot of comedies. It has something to say, and it does so in an imaginative way that is joyful to watch.
“Pitch Perfect” remains extremely watchable today, and is genuinely hilarious for most of its runtime, so it’s a shame that it has some glaring flaws. And it’s a shame the sequels course-corrected in the wrong direction.
—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at email@example.com.