Director Jason Moore is aware his musical comedy Pitch Perfect will be compared to Glee, American Idol and The Voice, but he’s thankful those television series exist.
"All these shows have created a zeitgeist in the culture," he acknowledged during a recent gathering of journalists, where he was joined by producers Max Handelman and Paul Brooks. "[Those shows] proved there's an audience where even a few years ago, there was the perception that this type of entertainment wouldn't work for a mass audience."
The Universal Pictures release, which opens Friday nationwide, follows Beca (played by Anna Kendrick), who has dreams of becoming a radio DJ but is forced to go to college. There, she joins an all-girls a capella group called The Bellas, which is determined to defeat the reigning Treble Makers in an international competition.
The movie musical has struggled at the box office since the mid-1980s, and even as Pitch Perfect began development, sinking money into the project was a risky proposition.
"A lot of it is a question of timing," Handelman said, noting that once musical television shows arrived, the project became more inviting. "We were able to just keep pushing the project up the hill and positioning it.”
Of course, the musical content is only one piece of the puzzle. To Handelman, the project was always first a comedy, "So, it was moving both of those pieces simultaneously."
"Truthfully, I never paid any attention to the fact of the Glees, the American Idols and all the rest of it," Brooks said. "I don't watch the shows, but if you look at them over decades, there've been cycles. It's like the weather." He gave the example of Opportunity Knocks, a British talent show that began life on radio in the late 1940s, but has reappeared intermittently on television ever since.
To Moore, who comes from a theater background, the popularity of shows like Hanna Montana and films like High School Musical is a positive development. "[They] created a whole generation of kids who think it's cool to sing,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was animated musicals and you had to be a mermaid to sing.”
Moore and the producers had their work cut out for them in assembling the track list for Pitch Perfect. Starting from the placeholder songs suggested in writer Kay Cannon's script, the team began looking for music that had a strong hook to the comedic element of the story. Because no song would be featured in its entirety, the pieces had to have a certain punch. "We were going to try and get in as many as we could and choose songs that were funny or had the ability for the character to be funny in them," Handelman explained. "But also that was across genre and across generation."
There was also the issue of finding music that was fresh and represented a level of "cool.” “Part of what the movie's about is what music is cool and what music is old fashioned,” Handelman said. “So, thinking about these kids at 20 and what they'd consider old-fashioned and cool, we had to spend some time figuring which songs any generation understands as cool."
Brooks used his time spent in traffic to find those songs. "Every time I'd be driving, I'd be listening to songs and writing it down and almost crashing my car," he said with a laugh. "Then I'd call Jason and he'd say 'Stop, behave. We can't translate this song -- no matter how great it is -- into an a cappella rhythm,’ which is just something I had no sense of. For me, it was 'That's a great song, let's just have them sing that.' It was an incredible learning curve."
To see if the songs could fit that "a cappella rhythm," Moore demonstrated material with a cappella performers. "Sometimes, there were songs that we loved that we found repetitive or not melodic enough for a singer to do if you don't have all the cool instrumental sounds to go with it," he said. "There were lots of songs that we loved and threw out."
Despite all that planning for the film’s musical aspects, Handelman approached casting with comedy in mind. "We didn't get consumed by the best singers," he said. "We wanted actors who are funny and could ground their characters and be real." Leading the pack is Anna Kendrick, who, according to the producer, offers "a lot of credibility in the community and grounds the film."
"We needed them to be real, but we also needed them to be funny," Moore added. The cast includes scene-stealers like Rebel Wilson and Hana Mae Lee. They all fit Handelman's criteria, but needed to possess another crucial ability.
"They also had to be able to sing," the director said, adding that he felt it was important for the actor to actually sing so their “unique voices and comic rhythms” came through. "The musical numbers needed to be funny so the characters get a chance to express themselves.” An actor dubbed over later by a professional singer wouldn’t have given Moore the same energy. "I couldn’t imagine how that would work in a situation like this."
Another situation the actors faced was four weeks of dance rehearsal with choreographer Aakomon Jones. "[The cast] had such different levels of dancing ability,” Moore explained. “[Jones made] them feel comfortable and able to do it in heels.” He also praised Jones' ability to incorporate the humor inherent in a cappella performances. "They have kind of a -- for lack of a better word -- cheesy way that they perform. It's kind of choreography for the deaf where it's very literal. He was able to take what was funny about that world and translate it with all of those elements."
Moore noted that the cheese factor is something the a cappella community acknowledges and embraces. "They make fun of themselves," he said. "I went to a few of these [competitions] and they would go, 'Yeah, I'm a white dude singing Rihanna and that is inherently funny and I know it's funny and I'm going to make fun of it and deliver it and make you enjoy it.' There's kind of all those levels happening all the time."
"But also, they do it really well," Brooks added.
There’s also the passion involved in a community largely made up of amateurs on their way to less flamboyant careers like law or business. "It's more like a social club in a way," Moore said. "So you're just trying to find people's strengths and get together and have fun."
"Hopefully, that's one of the things that plays out in the movie," Brooks said. "Passion is such a great thing ... even if people are passionate about playing Tiddlywinks or whatever."
"Now there's a movie!" Moore quipped.