Book Review: Pitch Perfect
Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory
Gotham Books, 2008
For once, I’m going to say it: The movie was better than the book.
I love the movie for all kinds of reasons: my own fond memories of attending college a cappella concerts, my absolute weakness for the feel-good story arc of a contest-and-triumph coming of age story, and the excellent musical talent on display in the revisions of pop songs. And yes, some of the personalities in the movie are caricatures- the Prissy Girl, the Tough Girl, the Geeky Love Interest Guy. And you’d have to be blind as well as tone deaf, probably, not to see where the plot is going. There’s a rivalry! There’s a competition! I love every melodic, predictable moment of it. It warms my heart. It makes me smile. I’m up for it, in book or movie form.
So I approached the book, ready to immerse myself in a story that combined an insider’s view of some of the details of a cappella with a feel-good competition arc, and some pleasant college nostalgia. Based on my fondness for the movie, and indeed, on the cover of the book, I was ready for a pretty clear arc as I settled in.
It was an ensemble story of three different a cappella groups: the all-female Divisi from Ohio, the all-male Beelzebubs from Tufts, and the all-male Hullabahoos from UVa (who perform in bathrobes.) The competition story arc is laid out neatly, with an introduction to the competitive world of the ICCAS- International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. The book begins with the 2005 championships, and Divisi not quite making the cut. So I’m expecting to see all three teams, sorry, groups, battle for the finals as the book progresses.
Not so much.
The chapters alternate between the a cappella adventures of the three groups- Divisi trying for another shot at the ICCAs, the Beelzebubs getting mired in tradition and leadership battles, and the Hullabahoos careening from wild success (all expenses paid swank trip to Portland) to Animal House style debauched failure (a party that burned a house down). It’s a little confusing, especially with two all-male groups to follow in alternate chapters, but the distinction between the hardworking, history-steeped Beelzebubs with leadership conflicts and alum backers, and the bathrobe-wearing, frat party vibe of the Hullabahoos helps, as well as some slightly familiar landmarks from UVa. (Sidenote to self- research college a cappella Christmas tracks, especially Beelzebubs.)
The parts where Rapkin pulls back for a longer view of a cappella’s evolution in context, from barber shop quartets to traditional glee club style harmonies, to more freewheeling mimicry of percussion with beatboxing and pop song instruments are the most interesting. That’s what I came to the book for, more a sense of how a cappella works, not just within individual groups but as a phenomenon as a whole. It’s weird, but fascinating. And, when Rapkin takes it at face value, telling groups’ stories and weaving elements from interviews into a narrative, it works for me as a solid music history narrative- a triptych story of three bands in parallel. I’ll buy it. Setting up the context allows Rapkin to set up statements like “Code Red might be the most controversial album in the history of collegiate a cappella,” and having that sound rational to an outside reader.
But at several points, Rapkin’s tone shifts from reporting to being deliberately sly about the weird geeky appeal of a cappella, in a sly and winking way that really doesn’t work. Yes, he sets up a context for a cappella being a pop culture joke on The Office, but that point gets made in the setp- he doesn’t need to keep making these smug asides, as if to have security in his own authorial coolness. It comes off as disrespectful journalism, and very misplaced.
Even though I’m familiar with college a cappella (my own alma mater fielded nine groups) and its pop songs and friendly rivalries, there are parts that just don’t translate all that well to text. It’s no easy task to describe the onomatopoeia and odd noises the backing singers have to make to convey the sound of instruments and percussion. For example, “Oooh//SHADAAA// Ooooh// Doo Doo” is supposed to describe the intro to an a cappella version of U2’s “One,” the Beelzebubs’ set piece. And I have no idea what that would actually sound like. Other attempts at depicting melody also fall (yes, I’m going to say it) flat.
I can see where elements of the book fed into the movie I really enjoyed, but selling this book with a “Now a Major Motion Picture” cover is misleading.
Definitely going to borrow the DVD when I stop by the library to return the book. Off to watch one of my favorite scenes from the movie. (NSFW warning: sexy lyrics)