“Pitch Perfect” — Hollywood once again has kids putting on a show

“Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, every American knew those words. In myriad movies, Andy Mickey Rooney, with a glowing Judy Garland at his side, enthusiastically announced that, if all the kids would just combine their musical talents, they’d be Broadway bound. Sure enough, with a little effort, and with some mentoring from wise elders, these kids would end up on a massive stage, wearing million-dollar costumes, singing and dancing their wholesome little hearts out.

Today, after a long hiatus, Hollywood is once again testing the musical waters with a “let’s put on a show” movie, Pitch Perfect. This movie, though, doesn’t have its heart set on Broadway. Instead, its momentum is directed at the gutter, with a healthy serving of vomit, spiced up with some sleazy sexual innuendos and racism on the side. This is a shame, because the Hollywood musical, with its endless homages to the wonders of live performance, really was one of Hollywood’s greatest artistic accomplishments.

Although a Hollywood musical’s sole purpose is permanence, Hollywood has always been fascinated with the dynamics of live performance. Indeed, back in 1927, the very first “talkie” was a musical, with Al Jolson, already famous on Broadway, warbling the first song ever put into a movie — “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” in The Jazz Singer:

Inspired by The Jazz Singer’s instant success, Hollywood churned out multiple musicals between 1927 and 1930. Almost without exception, these early musicals were dreadful. Between static cameras and primitive recording equipment, movie audiences had an experience equivalent to sitting in the back row of a large, crowded theater, all the while being forced to watch tuneless, tinny-voiced singers and plump chroines marching through wooden choreography. Audiences stayed away in droves and musicals quickly vanished.

Everything changed in 1933, when Busby Berkeley came to Hollywood and Warner Brothers gave him free rein. Berkeley was a visionary who understood that the camera could roam freely and, in essence, become part of the choreography. He moved the audience out of the seats and onto the stage.

Under Berkeley’s endlessly imaginative direction, Broadway stages (and all his early musicals were framed as Broadway shows) became bustling 42nd Street, trains to Buffalo, verdant waterfalls, gritty bread lines feeding hungry WWI veterans, and Shanghai dives. (That last, incidentally, bursts out of the dive and onto the streets of Shanghai, with dozens of sailors and bar girls doing precision drills that end with a patriotic salute to FDR and the WPA.)

Powered by Harry Warren‘s music, Berkeley’s camera swooped here and there, with Hollywood’s most beautiful extras, clad in scanty costumes, moving around in kaleidoscopic fashion. Consistent with Warner Brothers Studio’s grittier edges (as opposed to MGM’s sheen), Berkeley’s musicals were sexy and a little risqué, although never vulgar. You could take both your young daughter and your mother to see them, secure in the knowledge that, while they wouldn’t understand the mild double entendres, they’d still enjoy the wonderful musical numbers.

With Berkeley having opened the floodgates, the golden age of Hollywood musicals began. Fred wooed Ginger, Eleanor Powell charmed leading men ranging from Jimmy Stewart to Robert Taylor, Mickey and Judy fronted teams of talented teens, Betty Grable strutted her million dollar legs, Gene Kelly sang in the rain, and Donald O’Connor made ’em laugh. While most of these musical confections were more sophisticated than Mickey and Judy’s Broadway-bound romps, the vast majority had one thing in common: they charted the trajectory of a talented singer or dancer from nobody to star.

With Hollywood movies becoming ever more lavish (and the budgets getting comparably bigger), America’s most famous composers and lyricists abandoned Tin Pan Alley and Broadway for Hollywood. Harry Warren (a man whose talent has never been properly appreciated) was shunted aside by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Jimmy McHugh, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, and countless other talented men and women (mostly men), who made America sing.

Nothing good lasts forever. By the 1960s, Hollywood musicals reach both their apex and their nadir. Two of the most popular musicals ever made — Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music — came along in 1964 and 1965, respectively. Hello, Dolly! made a respectable showing in 1969 and that was it — the musical was close to death. Perhaps significantly, none of these late musicals involved a talented performing underdog who made it to the big times. Hollywood made a few half-hearted efforts to revive the musical, some successful (Grease and Fame), and some almost unbearably painful (Can’t Stop the Music), but overall, it looked as if musical lovers needed to prepare the eulogy and move on.

And then, just as Busby Berkeley had once come along to save the musical in the 1930s, the American musical found a savior in the 21st Century: Simon Cowell. Love him or hate him, Simon Cowell is a visionary. With American Idol, he got Americans deeply interested in singing again. Cowell then created or inspired an endless stream of musical performance reality shows. The success of shows such as American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, Sing Off, and America’s Got Talent proved to Hollywood that Americans today are as fascinated with musical rags to riches stories as they were more than fifty years ago.

With the success of these narrative-free reality shows, it was inevitable that someone would try to fictionalize these musical Cinderella stories. Enter Glee. Glee’s creation was an act of genius. Kids watch it because they love the musical acts, and Hollywood loves it because it sells an agenda that many American parents wouldn’t normally let their kids absorb. So, reality shows, TV shows . . . and then movies, right?

The newest entry in the movie category is Pitch Perfect, a movie about dueling a cappella choral groups, one male and one female, at fictional Barden University, a school that seemingly has neither classes nor teachers. The plot centers on Beca (played by 27-year old Broadway veteran Anna Kendrick), an emotionally remote college freshman whose real dream is to go to Hollywood and create mash-ups. Between a loving father (John Benjamin Hickey) who bargains with her to make the most of that freshman year, and a chance shower encounter with Chloe (Brittany Snow) one of the singers in Barden’s women’s a cappella group, Beca finds herself on the Bellas, an all-female a cappella group.

The movie’s heat-free romantic interest comes from Jesse (played amiably by Skylar Astin), a preternaturally secure freshman who lands a spot on the men’s group, the Treble Makers. Both groups are vying for the chance to win the national college a cappella championship, held annually at Lincoln Center.

Pitch Perfect could have been good in an average fashion. It has all the standard plot lines for a Hollywood movie centered on youthful talent aiming for the top: both the Treble Makers and the Bellas are led by unpleasant people (Adam DeVine and Anna Camp, respectively), whose leadership Beca and Jesse have to challenge. All of the students, from Beca and Jesse on down, have to learn to be nicer and more tolerant. And all of them have to develop their singing styles: The Bellas have to abandon their boring, staid, 50s-style approach to a cappella singing, while the Treble Makers have to find some heart to add to their soul. Although none of the cast members, most of whom are unknowns or barely-knowns, have exceptional voices, the singing is solid, and the arrangements — ranging from pop to soul to rap — are well-done and enjoyable.

The movie’s main flaw, from a parental viewpoint, is its vulgarity. Pitch Perfect is rated PG-13, which means there is no explicit sex or nudity, there are no F-bombs, and no one is graphically killed (or even wounded). With those no-noes out of the picture, Pitch Perfect settles in for a non-stop barrage nastiness, with scene after scene containing actual vomiting, vomit jokes, sex jokes, lesbian jokes, and fat people jokes. Of course, it’s worth noting that the whole vomit/performance theme isn’t so far-fetched. Not too long okay, both Justin Bieber and Lady GaGa managed to toss their cookies in the middle of live performances.

Pitch Perfect also takes the time to insult Jews (slightly) and Koreans (with surprising venom). In other words, this movie panders to the lowest common denominator of teen humor, ostensibly telling kids that they have it within themselves to shoot for the moon (or at least the show biz big-time), all the while spewing images and lines that leave both actors and viewers sullied.

What the movie lacks in class, it makes up in shallowness: Every character is hackneyed: Beca is an icy, distant rebel, with Kendrick bringing lukewarm energy to the part. Jesse is a personality-free nice guy with Astin’s major acting contribution being his undoubtedly sweet smile. The Treble Makers’ lead singer and manager is a predictably malignant, sexist jerk, while the Bella’s lead singer and manager is an equally predictable uptight, controlling virago. Some of the secondary characters, while receiving significant screen time, add nothing to the plot. For example, the manager of the college radio station at which Beca and Jesse work (Freddie Stroma) has no personality whatsoever and only the most slender relationship to the plot. His sole purpose in the movie appears to be to flash his great abs as a sop to teenage girls disappointed by Jesse’s sweet lack of hotness.

There are only two bright spots in this parade of predictables. The first is Rebel Wilson, who plays Fat Amy, a Tasmanian girl blessed with good vocals, unimpeded honesty, and no discernible social skills. There’s nothing original about her character, but Wilson has a surprisingly deft comedic touch, and a wonderful face, that’s simultaneously pretty, blank, and foolish. The second comedic bright spot is the vapid, offensive banter from the male and female hosts who appear at each competition (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks). As a caveat to this praise, though, be warned that, while these talking heads are amusing, they also let loose with some of the most sexually explicit lines in the movie, calling into serious question its PG-13 rating.

It’s truly a shame that Pitch Perfect chose to go for a demeaning, rather than an inspiring, tone. America has incredible musical vitality, and it’s refreshing to see the entertainment world taking it seriously once again. Likewise, there’s something endlessly appealing about seeing attractive young people sing and dance their way to the top. All of us can sing and all of us can dance, but so few of us can do those things well. We seem to get an almost atavistic thrill from watching people who have mastered these core human skills, and all of us celebrate their success. We can only hope that Pitch Perfect is a wobbly first step, akin to Hollywood’s early dreary musicals, on the way to an exciting Busby Berkeley-esque movie musical renaissance.