After winning the national a cappella championship in the first film, the Barden Bellas are back, and in the wake of a disastrous performance at the Kennedy Center, they are looking to redeem themselves by winning the international title. Can the group survive the higher-level competition, leader Beca Mitchell’s (Anna Kendrick) divided attention, and a new recruit (Hailee Steinfeld) who commits the cardinal a cappella sin of pushing original material? Supporting cast member Elizabeth Banks (who plays an a cappella commentator alongside John Michael Higgins, for a reliably snarky duo that grounds the musical action) is promoted to director.
Cards on the table: I like this sequel more than the first film. It is admirably polished, with a solid thematic spine. Fewer of the jokes bomb, and the balance of jokes is retained between more off-color ones and a spectrum of others. (Maybe my favorite line: “You think you’re a better lyricist than Sir Mix-a-lot??”) The characters are improved as well. Beca, who could come off as arrogant in the first film, has more explicit foibles and is more well-rounded. While there are a couple one-note characters (and oddly, a character who has had even that one note removed), they are contrasted by returning characters Aubrey (Anna Camp, appropriately in this film found at a camp) and Bumper (Adam DeVine) being satisfyingly played with more layers. Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy continuing to shine, and the best new addition to the cast is Keegan-Michael Key as a record producer, who’s consistently hilarious. The trick to acting in a Pitch Perfect film is heightening your performance to exactly the right level, and Key, along with most of the cast, gets it.
Now here’s my single true issue with the film, which is an aesthetic one related to some of the music. Several of the a cappella songs, especially toward the beginning of the film, make use of non-diegetic backing beats. This is such a counter-productive decision because the attraction of a cappella relates to the purity of the music – the sounds come entirely from human “instrumentation”. There’s even a moment when a performance is noted in dialogue as being “stripped down”, and it still has backing. The first performance of the Bellas’ rivals, German group Das Sound Machine, stands out all the more due to its lack of artificial backing. Thankfully the presence of non-diegetic beats significantly decrease as the film goes on.
The immaculate German antagonists represent an escalation that feels appropriate for the general mandate of “going bigger” with a sequel. But in this upscaling, the heart of the story is given just as much attention – Pitch Perfect 2 has a thematically rich screenplay by Kay Cannon. Hailee Steinfeld’s character is a “Legacy”, or the daughter of a former Barden Bella; meanwhile Bella co-leader Chloe (Brittany Snow) intentionally flunks classes in her senior year(s) to remain a Bella; and leader Beca finds her music industry ambitions at odds with the commitments of her group. Throughout the film this theme of group identity and the passage of time is shepherded to a hell of a payoff, which I’ll get to in a bit. But the point is, the theme is developed well, and has a flexible application for anyone who feels the anxiety of something ending and pre-empts nostalgia with an overly conscious attempt to seize the day.
In this sequel there’s more of an attempt to integrate the fiction with our real world, making for a slew of celebrity cameos. This could have been gratuitous, but it becomes an asset since they’re pretty much all funny. At the same time, things that worked in the first film are retained, such as the intricate a cappella games which are always some of my favorite sequences, and the up-and-down arc that brings the group low before they rally back. But even that potentially clichéd story structure works better in this sequel than it did in the first movie.
In Pitch Perfect, the challenges facing the group were based on bald-faced creative differences, whereas in Pitch Perfect 2, there is a bit of a chemistry issue, but overall the group performs just south of good for the majority of the runtime, while also focusing a little too much on being showy. It’s more interesting to watch a musical group progress organically from decent to great than it is to watch an immovable object meet an unstoppable force for an hour and a half until one of them gives and the performance automatically becomes great. Speaking of climaxes, Pitch Perfect 2‘s is a show-stopping wonder that beautifully pays off the themes of the film and packs a big emotional punch, tying everything with a satisfying bow.
Talk about leaving the audience with an emotional high; it’s a payoff that leaves me in a generous mood… not that there’s a whole lot that needs forgiving. Plus they did “Lady Marmalade”, which is one of my favorites. With well-integrated themes, on-point comedy, fun characters and mostly engaging songs, I’d say that Pitch Perfect 2 is aca-awesome. A strong 8/10.