Amidst the publicity storm for the new major studio film “Pitch Perfect,” there is little mention of the book upon which it is based. “Pitch Perfect,” by writer Mickey Rapkin, is actually quite different from the movie and it is perhaps fairer to say that the movie was based upon some of the concepts present in the book. Loosely. If you have seen the film and are excited for more of the same, the book may not be exactly what you are looking for. Here’s why.
YOU: I love evolving romances between good-looking young people. Can I expect more of the same in the book?
Answer: The movie sticks with the well-worn (and proven popular) story of a young woman who is wooed by a cute, quirky dreamer guy, and who doesn’t realize she cares for him until it is almost too late. While this was almost inevitable in a movie about young college folks, it has almost no analog in the book. The closest thing we find is sporadic references to Peter Hollens, founder of the University of Oregon’s On the Rocks and Evynne Smith (now Hollens), the founder of the University of Oregon’s Divisi, and their wedding on the campus where they met and fell in love. But that’s about it.
If you are looking for more of that type of thing, with an a cappella context, you might instead try “AcaPolitics” by Stephen Harrison.
I really enjoyed that “riff-off” in the book, and want to hear more stories about zany, spontaneous “battles” between college a cappella groups in empty pools and similarly acoustic-friendly-but-supremely-unlikely-venues.
Sorry, you’re gonna be disappointed again. First, because in my fifteen years of experience with high school, college, and post-collegiate a cappella, I’ve never seen or heard of a “riff-off.” Second, there is nothing remotely close in the book. There are stories about groups being upstaged because they didn’t prepare properly, groups being asked to change their songs or sets on relatively short notice, but nothing like the scene in the movie.
Vomit? Tell me there are more stories about vomit?!
Nope. Why would you want more of that?!
I have a thing for good-looking but obnoxious jerks. Is this book for me?
In a way. A substantial portion of the book is dedicated to separate encounters with prominent male groups, the (Tufts) Beelzebubs and the (University of Virginia) Hullabahoos. Each group has its share of cocky, apparently good-looking guys who either caused internal chaos within their respective group or completely let their respective group down. But remember- this is a cappella. Looks aren’t everything.
I am a competition junkie, and I want to know more about the world of competitive a cappella.
Now we’re getting a little closer. While the movie claims to have been based on the book, the reality is that only about one-third (at most) is based on the struggles of a female group in the world of competitive a cappella. The University of Oregon’s Divisi were, according to the sources relied upon in the book, robbed of a victory at the 2005 finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. In subsequent years, they tried to deal with group turnover, increased competition from other female groups, and many of the standard problems which college groups experience relating to dedication, internal conflict, and personal issues. The section of the book dealing with Divisi was the only section which bears any relation to the movie, and even then it is a distant relation.
Ok, I get it. The book is different. Why would I read it?
The book is, in a sense, an oral history of the world of contemporary a cappella music as told to Mickey Rapkin. The three main sections deal with Divisi, the Beelzebubs, and the Hullabahoos. The Beelzebubs section talks about how they worked to reinvent themselves after an album (“Code Red”) which was generally recognized as a turning point in the sound of recorded a cappella music. The Hullabahoos section talks mostly about how a group with a far shorter history than the Beelzebubs and with far less organization and perhaps dedication, can both achieve and fail in a number of noteworthy opportunities.
There is also a fourth section, broken up throughout the book, which discusses a number of historical characters, associations, and organizations in the contemporary a cappella community. Even though this was the smallest segment of the book, it was the one that I found most interesting because it featured stories about a number of names (Deke Sharon, Ed Boyer, Freddie Feldman, and countless others) and organizations (RARB, CASA, ICCA) which are prominent in our little world.
The problem with these sections, however, is that several of the disputes/rivalries which were discussed appeared to come from sources on only one side of the argument, lending it an appearance of bias.
Overall, though, the book is interesting if you long to know about the internal dynamics of a college a cappella group, the personality clashes, and the absurd opportunities which are available to a very small subsection of groups in this country. In my experiences, for example, very few groups pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, travel to the Philippines, have alumni associations that offer significant support, and get opportunities to shake hands with American presidents. On the flip side, most groups do deal with member turnover, stressful travel experiences and missed gigs, clashing personalities, and rivalries.
If you are curious what happens behind the scenes with groups that have a long and storied past (like the Beelzebubs) or much newer groups (Divisi), and curious about certain types of opportunities for performing or recording which are available to college groups today, the book may be of interest to you. It highlights a number of actors and entertainers who performed with groups in college (John Legend! Anne Hathaway! James van der Beek!), and a number of people who have been involved in a cappella music for years, if not decades. If you are curious about the people whose names turn up on a cappella podcasts, in album liner notes, in RARB reviews, etc., “Pitch Perfect” is worth reading. Before you pick it up, remember: don’t expect too much romance...or vomit.
"Pitch Perfect" opens tomorrow nationwide (10.5.12)
About the writer:
Dave Bernstein is the founder of NYU's all-male group Mass Transit, a former music director of the Potsdam Pointercounts, and (sadly) current member of no a cappella group. After studying music business in college, Dave co-founded Liquid Productions, a small recording studio in Long Island, New York, which produced a handful of collegiate recordings, demos, and commercial projects before going under. Eventually, he went back to law school where he worked for the famed Innocence Project. He currently works as a public defender in New York. In October 2011, he started acatribe.com, a blog devoted to news, analysis, and general love for all things a cappella. In summer 2012, he joined The Recorded A Cappella Review Board as a reviewer. He continues to sing in various classical choirs in the New York metropolitan area, and hopes to someday rejoin the active ranks of the post-collegiate a cappella community.