According to the assumptions by which Hollywood usually operates, Pitch Perfect should never have been an success. It was a musical about nerds, a film about women made mostly by women, with no box office stars to its name. It wasn’t a sequel, a remake, a superhero movie, or any of the typically bankable films that Hollywood regularly pumps out. Its eventual success happened not in spite of the things seemingly stacked against it, but because of them. It was a film that celebrated women the way it celebrated music, and served not the stereotypical male “geek culture” that movies like The Avengers cater to, but instead it embraced the nerd inside of us. The one that’s sometimes awkward or embarrassed, that hides from the world around us, but is immensely passionate about whatever it is that we love, music or otherwise. And in the end it made big stars out of its cast of familiar faces. There is no other movie among my friends and acquaintances that is as universally loved as Pitch Perfect, and it is always one of the first answers given to the question, “What should we watch?” Its passionate fanbase meant that a sequel was inevitable, and the only question was whether they could recapture lightning in a bottle and make something as special as the film that captured so many hearts. The answer isn’t quite so simple, but Pitch Perfect 2 is still a lot of fun, and it fills a niche that is too often ignored by Hollywood.
The sequel picks up three years after the end of the first film. Beca and most of the Barden Bellas are now seniors, having won the a cappella national championships for the third year in a row, and are due go on tour before competing in the world championships. But first, they’re set to perform for President and Mrs. Obama, an honor that turns into a disaster when Fat Amy’s leotard rips as she dangles from the ceiling, giving national television audiences and the leader of our country an extended look at something rather inappropriate for a cappella performance. The Bellas are banned from performing, competing, or recruiting new members, and will only be allowed to compete in the world championship because of a loophole in the rules. Beca makes a deal with the heads of the organization that if they win the world championship the Bellas will be reinstated, but the problem is that no American team has ever won an international a cappella competition before.
Beca, meanwhile, has her own problems to deal with. She’s scored an internship with a record label, hoping it might help her realize her dream of one day producing music, but it means that she has less time to devote to the Bellas. The rest of the team, however, is putting extra pressure on her to deliver a knockout setlist, which when paired with a crisis of confidence after some harsh words from her new boss threatens to tear the team apart. The Bellas have to find their sound again, and in a larger sense find themselves. Their only hope might be a new Bella, a freshman legacy whose mother was in the Bellas decades ago, but first an old friend will need to whip the team into shape and help them see what they’ve lost.
The appeal of Pitch Perfect was never the story, and that hasn’t changed for the sequel, although I do appreciate that they weren’t merely content to simply remake the first film. Instead, its charm lay in its killer musical numbers and its wonderful cast of relatable yet quirky characters. Everyone from the first movie has returned, headlined by Anna Kendrick as Beca and Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy but including even characters who should have graduated by now such as Brittany Snow as Chloe and Adam DeVine as Bumper. There are some new additions too, in particular Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s new boss and the Bella’s German competition, Das Sound Machine. The highlight of the additions is Hailee Steinfeld as freshman Emily. She brings a sweetness that helps offset the more jaded seniors, and an adorable awkwardness that fits in perfectly with the heart of what Pitch Perfect is all about.
Pitch Perfect 2 has its flaws, though. There are moments, especially in the first half of the film, where it’s clearly trying too hard. The jokes are a little too forced or over the top, and some moments fall flat. The musical performances this time out are also somewhat less impressive and memorable (with the exception of the finale) than our last time out, but I don’t know how much of that is a result of inflated expectations and how much is genuine comparison to the previous movie. On the other hand, some fan favorite moments have returned in a big way for the sequel, and none are better than the expanded riff-off, which is thrilling, hilarious, and features one of the most unexpected and bizarrely perfect cameos I’ve seen.
One of my favorite aspects of Pitch Perfect was the way it captured that particular moment in the life of most young adults when you’ve decided who you are and what you want to be but when it’s so difficult to share that honestly with others. The way Beca pushed others away and acted in a way to divert attention from herself, but how her true nerdiness and enthusiasm inside would sometimes leak out, it all felt very relatable to me. It can be extremely hard to find a group of people who you can call your friends, but even harder to open yourself up and display who you really are to them, for fear that they won’t understand when in reality they are all feeling the same way. Pitch Perfect 2 continues on those similar themes, but has grown and evolved with our characters to cover the other side of that coin. How do we deal with change and endings, how do we deal with setbacks and frustrations, and how do we admit that we’re afraid we don’t know what we’re doing and we’ll never amount to anything? I think its these real feelings, tackled with humor and a huge dosing of awkwardness to make us feel comfortable with these characters, that has made Pitch Perfect such a favorite among so many, and Pitch Perfect 2 is a fitting companion to the heart of its predecessor.
What really sets this series apart for me is the way it celebrates women. It has all of the trappings of a “girl power” movie, with musical numbers set to Beyonce and heart-to-hearts around a campfire, but it’s never a stereotype. It doesn’t reduce girl power into some kind of catchphrase, it doesn’t reinforce the negative stereotypes some people have about feminism, and it doesn’t treat its characters as mere symbols instead of real people. It doesn’t reduce women to a thin, white, straight stereotype (although even with a more diverse than usual cast, it’s still predominately filled with thin, white straight women), as the Bellas are made up of a variety of skin colors, body types, sexual orientations (Beca is basically confirmed to be bisexual by the film’s end, even if it’s played for humor), and personalities. I give Elizabeth Banks, who produced both films and steps into the director’s chair this time around, full credit for embracing that aspect and message of Pitch Perfect, without neglecting the humor, heart, and music that is so integral to what these movies are. I don’t know if there will be more a cappella in the future for these characters, though judging by how Pitch Perfect 2 destroyed its competition at the box office opening weekend I can’t imagine this is the end, but if this is it then at least Pitch Perfect 2 went out with the same attitude with which the series began.