HomeA Cappella Hits the Big Time - and the Big Screen

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A few years ago, actor Elizabeth Banks and her producing partner and husband, Max Handelman, received a copy of a non-fiction book by Mickey Rapkin entitled "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory" from a friend. They were so intrigued by the story that they decided to make it into a feature film, which opened in limited release on September 28 (nationwide on October 5). Starting with a world-class writer (Kay Cannon, writer/producer of NBC's 30 Rock and writer/executive producer on FOX's New Girl) to tackle the screenplay, Banks and Handelman began the painstaking work of putting together the personnel that would make the project a reality.

As the search progressed for music arrangers to take on the pivotal a cappella portions of the film, the growing production staff noticed - as those of us familiar with the aca-world could have predicted - that the names of Ed Boyer and Deke Sharon kept popping up. With so many high-level credits to their names, it was evident that these two would be the best choices for music directors of “Pitch Perfect”.

Additionally, when writer Kay Cannon was doing research for the screenplay, she made contact via email with members of the SoCal VoCals, including another familiar name to established aca-fans, Ben Bram. Ben and his cohorts in the VoCals were able to provide a lot of background information directly from their experiences as collegiate a cappella singers, which may have helped to bring a deeper level of authenticity to Cannon's characterizations. Ben notes that "The characters Stacie and Donald may or may not have been loosely inspired by our writing."

The fact that Ed, Deke, and Ben had also worked together as a team on “The Sing-Off” sealed the deal. With these three on board, planning what music would be used in the film began a little over a year ago, before the cast was even in place. "It was clear from the outset that we wanted to have a number of songs that were very current, as well as some older classic hits that parents who bring their kids to the movie (or someone who doesn't listen to current pop radio) would enjoy," says Deke.

In the fall of 2011, Ed, Deke, and Ben went on location to Louisiana to work with the cast of actor/singers, teaching and rehearsing all the music and then filming in November and December. Doing this kind of work presents some unique challenges, even for seasoned pros like these three. "Usually, the only rule of arranging is to take a piece of music, match it to a group of singers and have it sound good," says Ed. "What's new about this, for us, is that there's a movie plot in the mix. We have to take into account what's occurring and which actors are being highlighted in the scene. Musically, things get moved around to match what's happening with the visuals and what's been happening with the plot."

Director Jason Moore was very glad to have the experience and know-how that real a cappella professionals brought to the project. "Having Ed and Deke on-site and working with the actors was crucial to getting it to seem organic and real," he says.

Being able to participate behind the scenes in the process of creating a major motion picture was rewarding for the music staff as well, and there were non-working moments that made a big impact. Deke’s fondest memories are his rehearsals with the Bellas and the Treblemakers, taking a room full of loud, excited, extroverted actors and somehow turning them into an a cappella group. For Ed, one of his favorite experiences was rehearsing with the Tonehangers, a quartet of 30-somethings played by Donald Faison (Scrubs), Jason Jones (Daily Show), Joe Lo Truglio (Superbad), and Harmar Superstar (Starsky & Hutch). "They're just fun guys," says Ed, "and they threw themselves into the (completely ridiculous) song."

Perhaps one of the most heartfelt highlights of working on the film happened for Ben, as he had the opportunity to work with Kelley Jakle, a friend from college with whom he sang in the VoCals, and alongside whom he competed in the real ICCA competition. Memories of the amazing experiences they had together, as well as getting to help create a movie about it was "pretty surreal," he says.

It's evident that a cappella music is becoming more and more mainstream all the time, with the popularity of “The Sing-Off”, and now a full-length feature film with recognized actors and production personnel. This milestone seems to be an important one for the community of a cappella artists and enthusiasts, but why? "I'd say the #1 reason is recognition and recruitment," says Deke. "No one who sings a cappella will view this movie as anything more than a complete fantasy (rapidly improvising complicated medleys? In college?), but that was always going to be the case. It's not a documentary; it's a comedy that happens to be set in the world of collegiate a cappella. That said, many people, especially teens and tweens, will likely see this movie and say, 'I want to do that!'" Deke expects that participation in both college and high school a cappella programs will increase because of the film, and the effects of the movie can be long-reaching as today’s young pre-teens won’t be entering college for another decade.

A prime-time television show and a feature film focusing on a cappella music, within a couple of years of each other? Who could have seen that coming, even just five or ten years ago? For many who've long been drawn to the immediacy and artistry of vocal harmony, it's about time.

Many thanks to Deke Sharon, Ed Boyer, and Ben Bram for their assistance with this article.

"Pitch Perfect" opens TODAY (October 5)!

About the writer:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University.  She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus.  She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical?  These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.