SoundTreks: Pitch Perfect 2
On May 12, 2015, the soundtrack record for Elizabeth Banks’ hit film Pitch Perfect 2 was released in record stores. (And, for clarity’s sake, I should indicate that my nomenclature of “records” and “record stores” refers to both the old-fashioned physical media model as well as the non-physical digital model.) The original Pitch Perfect was the biggest sleeper hit of 2012, earning about $65 million on a budget of only $17 million. Its sequel has already made over $135 million, and counting.
It’s refreshing to see films like Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 succeed to such a degree. These are movies about young women, music, and a flighty form of delightful comic positive idiocy that we don’t see often enough in theaters, and certainly don’t see from all-female casts. It’s also wonderful to see that a film’s soundtrack can be as important as the film itself. The soundtrack records for these films have been enormous hits, and have, in their own small way, ignited an increased mainstream interest in a cappella music.
I admit that I wasn’t 100% on board with the first Pitch Perfect, largely because I was already a fan of the a cappella form. I already owned records by The Bobs, Rockapella, The Nylons, The Persuasions, Throat Culture, not to mention a pile of a cappella compilation albums. I was put off my the first film’s tendency to interrupt its own musical numbers by color commentary. Pitch Perfect 2, in being slightly longer, managed to include more singing. And that is always going to be a strength in whatever musical you’re making.
Indeed, I would say Pitch Perfect 2 has the superior soundtrack in most aspects. Let’s take a look.
Track 1: “The Universal Fanfare” – Elizabeth Banks & John Michael Higgins
Banks and Higgins play a pair of politically incorrect a cappella commentators in both the Pitch Perfect films, and lay claim to the a cappella rendition of the Universal fanfare, a trick only used in two other films (the original and in Man on the Moon, when it was performed by The Bobs). It’s a silly, fun way to ease you into the a cappella fun to come.
Track 2: “The Kennedy Center Performance” – The Barden Bellas
The Barden Bellas are the fictional college a cappella band from within the film, and, for the most part, the actresses perform the pieces in question, although they are backed up by other professionals. This track is a medley that contains covers of Icona Pop’s “We Got the World,” Pitbull’s “Timber,” “America the Beautiful,” and Hannah Montana’s “Wrecking Ball.” It’s a bit surprising how plain this track seems when taken out of the context of the movie. The singing is first rate, but the mix seems uninspired. It’s exciting, but in a very usual way.
Track 3: “Lollipop” – The Treblemakers
This is the strongest track on the entire record, presenting us a compete song without any interruption or gossip. I was unfamiliar with the Mika original going in, so IU wasn’t put off by interpretation or changes. I only heard a strong a cappella choir (in the movie, the Bella’s good-natured male counterparts, The Treblemakers) giving their all to a jaunty and upbeat number.
Track 4: “Car Show” – Das Sound Machine
Das Sound Machine plays the role of the ambiguously evil antagonists to the Barden Bellas in the film, and, as such, sound tight-knit and super-produced to act as a balance to the Bellas’ more free-wheeling, personable style. Some of the vocal percussion from Das Sound Machine is excellent, but there is an unfortunate tendency to play up the group’s comedic German-ness in their vocals, ensuring some distracting pidgin Deutsch accents. Someone should tell Elizabeth Banks, or the film’s vocal director, that European singers can – and do – sing with American accents. Since their pieces are much be more intense compared to the rest of the record, Das Sound Machine tracks tend to be to covers of echoey, angsty blast rock like Muse and intense electronica like DVBBS.
Track 5: “Winter Wonderland/Here Comes Santa Claus” – Snoop Dogg & Anna Kendrick
The cameo of Snoop Dogg in Pitch Perfect 2, seen recording a Christmas record, yuk yuk, was essentially a throwaway gag. It also let the filmmakers have a little goofy duet with the prim Kendrick, a woman with a fairly nice set of pipes, and the notoriously game Snoop. On the soundtrack, this goof is expanded into an entire 3-minute Christmas song that you could easily hear playing in any mall come Christmastime (and probably will). With the context of the movie behind it, this track is very fun. In a vacuum, however, it sounds too much like a lot of other Christmas music.
Track 6: “Riff Off” – Various
There’s a lot going on in this track, and many people take turns singing, so I’ll just credit it to “various.” In the film, this track is broken down into a competition between the rival a cappella groups, and they take turns singing famous hits at one another (do the bands have arrangements of these hits at the ready just in case of such competitions?). On the actual record, however, the dialogue and pauses are erased, making the music the centerpiece. And thank goodness. Now you can just enjoy the singing. Although I am still distracted by the German accents on Das Sound Machine. Do they have to bowdlerize Montel Jordan into “Ziss is how vee dö it?” I also appreciate that The Green Bay Packers are credited as singers.
Track 7: “Jump” – Das Sound Machine, et al
An extension from the previous track. It’s a minute and 16 seconds. It’s a cover of Kriss Kross. See above.
Track 8: “Convention Performance” – The Barden Bellas
It’s around here that I have to admit that I am sorely out of touch with a lot of recent electronica. This is a mashup between Nero’s “Promises” and “Trouble” by Natalia Kills, both of which I had never heard before this film. I can say that, given the disastrous ending of this song and the role it plays in the movie (it’s an indicator of how bad the Bellas have become) this soundtrack does tend to have a deliberate prejudice against electronic music in general. Recreating dance floor beats is not exactly conducive to a cappella anyway, and this is where the soundtrack begins to acknowledge that.
Track 9: “Back to Basics” – The Barden Bellas
This was a medley of five songs, and I kind of wish it has just been separated into five full tracks. The Bellas (as part of a training montage in the film) try out different styles of singing, going from The Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” to Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” to Hanson’s “MMMBop,” to, naturally, En Vogue’s “Never Gonna Get It” (well, the breakdown, anyway). A cappella music is versatile and can cover more than just pop hits. Having this cross-section of styles is revealing and great. I want more.
Track 10: “Cups (When I’m Gone)” – The Barden Bellas
This track is the emotional center of the record as well as the film. It’s an expanded version of Anna Kendrick’s audition piece from the first Pitch Perfect. Originally, it was a quiet ditty. Here, it’s far more emotional. It’s the singers lamenting that they will eventually drift apart. There’s something wistful about this rendition that trumps the original in many aspects. It’s enough to give you a lump in your throat.
Track 11: “We Belong” – Rebel Wilson and Adam Devine
This is essentially a comic retelling of Pat Benatar’s hit. In the film, the humor is contingent on the visuals (Wilson begins singing her torch song to her lost boylove long before she should have), so on the record, it plays kind of awkward. It’s not as funny as it could have been.
Track 12: “Anyway You Want It” – Various
It’s a pity that so many existing, talented a cappella bands were assembled to sing one of the more obnoxious Journey songs, but I am at least heartened that the following real a cappella bands made their way onto this record: Pentatonix, The Filharmonic, The Cantasticos, The Singboks and Penn Masala. One of my quibbles with the original is that it didn’t tap directly into the enormous tradition of college a cappella by including such bands. Now, we have a chance to see – however briefly – several bands shine. Look up all of these bands, if you’re an a cappella fan. You’ll find varied careers across the board.
Track 13: “World Championship 1” – Das Sound Machine
Again, Das Sound Machine offers up a super-electronic-sounding, dark-ish rap mashup of Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” and DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.” There is more musicality and more comedic restraint in this track, making it the better of the Das Sound Machine tracks on the record.
Track 14: “World Championship 2” – The Barden Bellas
In any sort of competition movie, the heroes always get to go last, and the Bellas give us a huge mashup of “Timber,” “We Belong,” “Lady Marmalade,” Beyoncé’s “Run the World,” Flo Rida’s “Where Them Girls At,” and and original piece called “Flashlight” written by Sia Furler. “Flashlight” is a sweet ballad, I suppose, but it’s only virtue (as pointed out in the film) as that it’s the only original piece in a soundtrack of covers. The Bellas’ final piece is spirited and fun.
Track 15: “Crazy Youngsters” – Ester Dean
A fun youth rock piece celebrating youth that played over the film’s credits. No a cappella. I’m not a big fan of the recent trend of ostensibly youthful amelodic electronic rock that dominates a lot of the pop charts. They’re hard to sing along to, and don’t seem the least bit upbeat. This song passed into my brain, and then passed out again just as quickly. It’s more functional than notable.
Track 16: “End Credit Medley” – Mark Mothersbaugh
This is the only piece of the film’s score on the soundtrack, but it’s an excellent cross-section of what the masterful Mark Mothersbaugh does with film scores, especially when he’s working in his more playful mode. Mothersbaugh’s electronic tinkling is propulsive and can even feel a little subversive at times. Of course, I’m a Devo fan, so I’m familiar with Mothersbaugh’s operating ethos, so I listen for more than perhaps a casual listener would.
Track 17: “Flashlight” – Jesse J
I’ll say this for “Flashlight”: It could easily be a recent radio jam. That may or may not be a good thing. I like the sweet lyrics, as they have a teenage simplicity to them (which is appropriate, as the song was written by an 18-year-old girl within the film), but this song will only sink or swim depending on its association with this film. I think it would be lost in the pop landscape if left to stand on its own.
Track 18: “Bumper’s Audition” – Adam Devine
A postscript to the soundtrack, this is the over-the-credits stinger wherein Devine is seen giving a fake audition on The Voice by singing John Legend’s “All of Me.” This is just included for funsies, as Devine sputters and rants in the midst of the sing, addressing unseen judges.
Which Is Better: The Soundtrack or The Film?
In this case, the soundtrack trumps the film ever so slightly. You can trace through the tracks on this record, and reconstruct the film’s narrative. It contains a lot of the film’s comedic power, and it has the advantage of allowing the music to play all the way through without any pesky cutaways, commentary, or exposition. If someone told you the story of the film, you could derive just as much pleasure from the soundtrack without having seen it in context. The context would help, but the soundtrack has a strange purity to it that I appreciate. And director Banks even had a voice on the soundtrack, so you get a small taste of her filmmaking personality as well.