Two weeks ago, for about a day, I allowed myself to get excited about the upcoming premiere of Pitch Perfect 2, the follow-up to 2012’s improbable hit comedy about the competitive collegiate a cappella circuit—or, as one of the characters put it, “organized nerd-singing.” Then I came back to my senses and to that familiar contemporary condition for which there ought to be a word, probably a German one: the dread of a superfluous sequel to a small, beloved original. (Überschussangst?)
Like many people, I suspect, I was startled by how hard I fell for the original Pitch Perfect. The premise did nothing to lure me to the movie theater, as I had no particular attachment to Glee, Nick Lachey’s a cappella TV competition show The Sing-Off, or, say, Bobby McFerrin. But when it came to pay-per-view, on a whim I gave it a chance.
Within minutes I was helplessly beguiled, despite so much of it being clichéd, silly, and borderline offensive. Ever since, whenever I catch it playing on TV, I’m unable to pass it up. I must have seen it six or seven times … OK, a dozen. It exudes a gold-staying joy, via some kind of alchemy among the cast (mostly women, led by Anna Kendrick, about whom I’d never given a damn till then), the thin but “fat-hearted” plot (straight out of teen-team-competition flicks such as Bring It On, Step Up, etc.), and, especially, the music.
Taking place in a half-imaginary world in which a cappella is still dorky yet somehow glamorous and celebrated (based on the real-life reporting of GQ’s Mickey Rapkin), Pitch Perfect stakes its all on loving pop music: on knowing it deeply enough to disassemble and rearrange it and find your true self there—and yet not take it overly seriously. Made up mainly of infinitely rewatchable set pieces, the film shows the characters working hard on their craft but also draws on classic movie-musical magic to endow them with impossible reserves of spontaneous virtuosity, as in the movie’s peak, the glorious, too-brief late-night “riff-off” contest in a drained campus swimming pool—for the acoustics, of course.
It never forgets, however, that what it’s glorifying is basically a goofy, supersquare pastime, the musical equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons. Along with Kendrick’s character Beca, an aspiring DJ with a spiky cool-girl attitude who joins the Barden Bellas reluctantly, viewers can hang their skepticism on Gail and John (Elizabeth Banks and veteran Christopher Guest film improviser John Michael Higgins), the aged-out adults who provide alternately unenthused and deadpan-idiotic color commentary for each starry competition in “making music with your mouth.” You can make a melodrama about street dance, says Pitch Perfect, but about a cappella it is necessary to laugh.
So did I want more Pitch Perfect? Of course. Maybe this time without so many jokes based on ethnic stereotypes, one-dimensional traits (the fat girl, the slut, the lesbian, the weirdo), and extremely disgusting vomiting. Twice the Pitch Perfect would mean twice the hours of blissing out on the couch in vicarious singalong ecstasy—or else, as my Überschussangst quickly reminded me, cringing and moaning, “What have you done to my baby?”
As it turns out, it’s a little of both. Pitch Perfect 2 does offer a few more doses of the abandon the first movie was drenched in, for which any fan will be grateful. But it also loses its way. Thankfully it does nothing to ruin the original, but most of its attempts to advance the concept amount to regressions instead.
The new film, again written by improv comic Kay Cannon (30 Rock) and this time directed by Banks, skips ahead a few years from the last. The Bellas under Beca’s direction have won several more national championships and are on the verge of graduating (some of them belatedly, because they can’t let go). They are doing a high-profile gig for the president’s birthday—the Obamas are spliced into the scene very convincingly—when they are humiliated by a “wardrobe malfunction” during a cover of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”
The gag depends on body-shaming the “Fat Amy” character (the ebulliently game Rebel Wilson) even more than the original movie did, basically implying that vaginas are gross, fat girls are gross, and fat girls’ vaginas are really gross. It does not make an auspicious start, and it’s a bellwether of the failure of Pitch Perfect 2: Rather than use the first film’s success as a reason to move on confidently from the cheap shots, it doubles down.
There’s a new Guatemalan Bella whose every line is a gag about poverty and illegal immigration and a continuing current of gay jokes that are obviously not meant literally but remain as a shield against a cappella’s overall queer ambience.* It’s not homophobia so much as it is internalized geek-ophobia, Hollywood’s discomfort with making movies for nerds, which, when it comes to singing, include a lot of gay and “ethnic” nerds.
The Pitch Perfect franchise often stumbles on this line between cheerful self-deprecation and compensatory bullying. Likewise, it’s always trying to have its feminism both ways, as when Beca walks in on her Bella sisters having a pillow fight and tells them, “You know this sets women back 30 years”—they listen and then go right back to bouncing around.
“Muffgate” results in the Barden Bellas’ suspension from national competition, their only recourse being the international finals in Copenhagen, Denmark, where no American team ever wins because the world hates America. Their rivals turn out to be a comically fit crew from Germany, Das Sound Machine, whose superhumanity is a cute foil to the Bellas’ batch of misfits. But it’s cardboard villainy. Instead of an easily booed bunch of Aryans, the movie might have set the Bellas up against one of the Asian or African teams we glimpse toward the end and dealt with our leading pack of underdogs feeling conflicted about their position of advantage, needing to find empathy within the rivalry. The first movie raised that kind of question with the dynamics between the male and female teams, but there’s no parallel here.
In fact, our heroes barely face any substantial obstacles. The first film was about redemption not just for the Bellas but for a cappella itself, requiring both Beca and the audience to discard their prejudices and embrace the embarrassment. That job is taken as complete here, so for the most part it’s all a victory lap, a redundant celebration of Pitch Perfect’s own success. Where previous conflicts were both inherently musical and organically related to character—as well as versions of femininity, the Bellas’ sorority prissiness versus Beca’s too-cool facade—here they mostly spring from an accident.
With one exception: the subplot about Beca’s internship at a record studio under a domineering producer played snappily by Keegan-Michael Key, of Key and Peele. He points out that all she’s made are mashups rather than original productions—a point that ends up reflecting back on the limitations of a cappella itself. Even if the conflict depends on a rather aesthetically retrograde definition of originality, it’s the most successful illumination of the film’s theme of growing up, a reprise of Beca’s tendency to go it alone rather than reach out for support.
It’s also a missed chance. Instead of some trumped-up contest in Copenhagen, the whole movie could have been about these young musicians at the pinnacle of their cosseted field taking on the professional entertainment business and attempting to cross the very real barrier that separates novelty acts from legitimacy. That’s a struggle with authentic stakes and risks, raising issues of musical value that this movie only lightly brushes.
Of course there are still plenty of pleasant musical set pieces, mostly variations on ideas from the first film; that’s a sequel’s obligation, and I’m not mad at it. (I was happy to hear some contemporary country in particular, with Beca sizzling on Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”) But the process of generating those moments is less lingered-over and loved. When we see all the a cappella groups getting together for a party, for instance, recorded music plays in the background. No singing? What happened to our aca-addicts? Wilson does have one stellar sequence, both musically and comically, built around Pat Benatar’s “We Belong,” a van, and a rowboat, yet near-blasphemously it’s all set to a backing track rather than her comrades’ oral orchestrations.
So a cappella is at once overpampered here and taken too much for granted. The new ingenue character, taking the audience-POV place of Beca from the first movie and played by Hailee Steinfeld, is nicknamed “Legacy” because her mom was a Bella. Rather than incarnate our dubiousness as Beca did, though, she represents starry-eyed Pitch Perfect fandom. Like Beca, she turns out to bring something extra and special, but she plays far too easy to get, and that’s how Pitch Perfect 2 treats both its viewers and its subject matter—including pop music itself, the first film’s true and elusive heart. This sequel succumbs to a predictable syndrome and goes big when it should have gone home. Its self-satisfaction is a step toward cynicism, and that is what a Pitch Perfect film must never be.
*Correction, May 18, 2015: This article originally misidentified the character of Flo as Mexican. She is Guatemalan. (Return.)