The Barden Bellas take on the world in Pitch Perfect 2
As Pitch Perfect 2 takes the US box officeby storm, Amy Kaufman examines a rare word-of-mouth hit
"I'm gonna really embarrass myself here," Howard Stern cautioned his satellite radio listeners. "But I watched Pitch Perfect, and I liked it." That 2012 comedy about a female a cappella group beloved by teenage girls? It was the shock jock's guilty pleasure.
Universal Pictures executives passed around audio from Stern's show, taken aback by the film's unlikely fan. But his surprising confession was just one of many unlikely developments that led to the studio greenlighting a highly anticipated sequel to what was only a modest box office success.
It's the kind of story that happens rarely in Hollywood these days - the true word-of-mouth hit. The young females came first: opening weekend, the audience was 81 per cent female, with 55 per cent under age 25.
The demographic fully embraced the picture's girl power-centric storyline and the soundtrack's creative spin on Top 40 hits. High schoolers began hosting sing-along slumber parties. Children were driving their parents batty trying to master Cups, the film's most popular song with a rhythmic portion that requires hand-clapping and a paper cup.
In case you weren't one of those fangirls, a quick primer: Pitch Perfect follows the Barden Bellas, an a cappella group whose members bond as they try to pull their act together for a national singing competition. There's the artsy girl who works at the school's radio station and remixes the group's songs (Anna Kendrick). The plump goofball who insists her group mates call her "Fat Amy" even though her name is Patricia (Rebel Wilson). The neurotic overachiever so obsessed with a cappella that she uses "aca" as an all-purpose prefix, as in, "aca-awesome!" (Brittany Snow). They're a ragtag group of underdogs, but together they make it work.
The film was based on a book by GQ editor Mickey Rapkin, in which he gave a behind-the-scenes look at collegiate a cappella groups from schools such as Tufts University and the University of Virginia.
But it wasn't until the film's afterlife that things really got crazy.
When Pitch Perfect was released on home video about Christmas 2012, it started to become clear that the film had connected with more than just teen girls.
And when HBO began offering Pitch Perfect to subscribers the next June, the movie attracted nearly 26 million viewers, making it the network's top performer in 2013 above such box office behemoths as The Dark Knight Rises and Ted.
It started to feel like the movie was everywhere, even though it wasn't actually anywhere. People started using catchphrases such as "aca-scuse me?" in casual conversation. On her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer had a skit about a guy who didn't want his girlfriend to know he'd secretly memorised the Cups routine.
In many ways, Pitch Perfect followed the trajectory of such films as Austin Powers, The Big Lebowski and Anchorman - comedies that became cultural phenomena long after they exited multiplexes.
Of course, with most movies like this - the kind you quote all the time or rewatch with your spouse when you can't settle on anything else - lightning doesn't strike twice. The Sex and the City sequel was a critical and commercial bust, and sequels to Legally Blonde, Charlie's Angels and Anchorman were duds, too.
Still, Universal felt confident that the groundswell behind Pitch Perfect was unique. The movie's soundtrack - featuring a cappella versions of songs by Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna - was the top seller of 2013, going on to sell nearly 2 million albums worldwide.
"The music really eventised the movie in a way comedy is leaning towards right now," says Pitch Perfect actress Elizabeth Banks, who directed the sequel. "A director like Paul Feig can eventise a movie by having a big comedic star such as Melissa McCarthy in it, or you can have a big, exciting hook. It just turned out that the musical numbers were ours."
To capitalise on the musical momentum, record company executives asked whether Kendrick could make a video for her song Cups - a song so popular it spent 50 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Meanwhile, Wilson - an Australian actress who had previously had only a cameo in Bridesmaids - was becoming a breakout star and was asked to host the 2013 MTV Movie Awards.
"You could see we had something as a company," says Pete Levinsohn, Universal's president and chief distribution officer. "It felt like we could go after a sequel based on potential instead of box office."
So in September 2013, Kay Cannon began work on a script. Kendrick and Wilson agreed to return.
"The reason all of us signed on for the second one was because the fans wanted it," says Wilson, 35. "They were so nice and generous on social media. The movie has a good message and a lot of girl power. When I look at it, I go, 'Oh, that's a movie I'd go and watch if I wasn't in it'. It's like Bring it On with a cappella singing."
The studio had hoped that director Jason Moore would return to helm the second film, but learned in December that he was already booked on another project. So after studio chairman Donna Langley saw a short film Banks had directed for the American Heart Association, she offered the actress the gig.
"Speaking as a producer and not as her husband, after it was clear Jason wouldn't be able to direct, there was no other idea beyond Elizabeth," says Max Handelman, Banks' husband and a producer of both Pitch Perfect films.
"The tone of Pitch Perfect is so specific, and from the studio's perspective, they wanted someone who could step right in and seamlessly understand the movie comedically and musically."
In the sequel, the Bellas are still in college - but they've moved into a sorority-style house together. After Fat Amy accidentally exposes her nether regions to an audience that includes President Barack Obama, the group again faces an uphill battle to be taken seriously.
There were certain elements from the first movie that the filmmakers knew they needed to hang onto in Pitch Perfect 2. One of the most popular scenes from the original was the riff-off - an a cappella battle between the Bellas and other singing groups - so Cannon decided to give the idea another spin.
Banks also wanted to make sure the Bellas came across as underdogs. At the end of Pitch Perfect, the group is triumphant, having won a huge national showdown. "We had to have them start at that level - we couldn't just suddenly take away all of their skills," Banks says. Hence the Fat Amy fiasco at the top of the film, and a new arch nemesis for the Bellas to take on - the menacing German a cappella group Das Sound Machine.
Other things, though, had to be bigger and better. The Bellas couldn't just compete for a national title - they had to head for the world title, which would also give the film an international tie-in. New girls were added to the group, including True Grit Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld. English pop star Jessie J was drafted to write the sequel's new original song, Flashlight, which Universal is hoping will become the next Cups. And the film's budget was upped to US$29 million.
"I think it's cool that it's turned into a franchise," says Banks. "I remember somebody once saying to me, 'If you get an opportunity to do a franchise, do it'. This obviously wasn't envisioned as that, but look what it's become."
Los Angeles Times
Pitch Perfect 2 is out now