“Beca, a freshman at Barden University, is cajoled into joining The Bellas, her school’s all-girls singing group. Injecting some much needed energy into their repertoire, The Bellas take on their male rivals in a campus competition.”
The first thing I noticed when I saw Pitch Perfect was the ENERGY of the film and the quirky characters who are confident and actively moving the story forward. I have since seen Pitch Perfect numerous times and the film retains the same energy-infusing effect.
So I asked myself, how did Cannon achieve this? And upon reading Kay Cannon’s funny, fast-paced script, it was clear that she had set the tone and energy in the script itself. It is all right there on the page. By adding specific songs that enhanced the plot and character development, Cannon communicated the pace and tone brilliantly (examples below). Hailing from Second City in Chicago and having worked closely with Tina Fey, Kay Cannon’s impeccable comedic timing and off-the-wall jokes seem effortless in Pitch Perfect.
What can we learn from her?
Two lessons learned from reading the Pitch Perfect screenplay:
- How to write comedy and alts. What are alts? They are explained below.
- Use essential elements to the setting — in this case, music — to progress the story and explore character.
#1. In the following scene, Jesse’s socially awkward roommate Benji talks to the leader of the Treblemakers, Bumper, whom he admires:
Bumper, huge fan. Your arrangement
of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in
Magic” inspired me to become a certified
Benji stuffs a red scarf into his fist, and then holds up his empty hands. A little piece of the scarf protrudes from Benji’s enormous fake thumb. He fails the trick a couple of times. Bumper just stares.
(to the gang)
I feel like I’m too important for this.
[ALT: The smell of your “weird” is
affecting my vocal chords.]
So why don’t we exchange emails or
maybe totally hang out right now?
Jesse grabs Benji and hurries him away.
HOW TO WRITE COMEDY. STYLE, TIMING, ALTS — Notice how the ALT for Bumper’s line is far better than the actual line? No wonder it made it to the final film and Donald’s line was cut. What is an ALT? “ALTS” are alternatives for lines — usually for jokes. This is useful for productions because it provides the actors with options. If one joke isn’t landing on set, others are immediately available.
Miscommunication is funny. Seeing how hard Benji tries to make friends with Bumper in the above scene is uncomfortable for the audience — both due to the absurdity of Benji’s actions as well as his disconnect in social situations. He tries so hard, and is endearing, but as Jesse says, goes “too far.”
Cannon takes these common character quirks and uses them for comedic effect, while also revealing bits about each character. In the above scene, we see that Bumper is rude and kind of a bully. Donald is a “yes man” to Bumper. Benji has passion and drive but is socially inept. Jesse is a caring friend to Benji and has a paternal, protective quality.
The comedic style of Pitch Perfect is largely dialogue-driven, as many modern comedies are, but Cannon adds enough big gags (i.e. Aubrey’s puking scenes) and setting changes to keep things visually interesting. The film moves at a fast pace yet allows for quiet moments of character exploration and growth.
#2. In the following scene, Beca and the Bellas are taking a bus to their competition and we see the infectious nature of song:
… I HOPPED OFF THE PLANE AT LAX
WITH A DREAM AND MY CARDIGAN
Instinctively, Cynthia Rose joins her.
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF FAME
CHLOE/CYNTHIA ROSE/FAT AMY
AM I GONNA FIT IN?
ALL EXCEPT BECA
JUMPED IN THE CAB/HERE I AM
FOR THE FIRST TIME/LOOK TO
MY RIGHT AND I SEE THE
HOLLYWOOD SIGN/THIS IS ALL
SO CRAZY/EVERYBODY SEEMS SO
ANGLE ON: Beca, “This is lame.”
ALL EXCEPT BECA (CONT’D)
MY TUMMY’S TURNIN’ AND I’M
FEELIN’ KINDA HOME SICK/TOO
MUCH PRESSURE AND I’M
NERVOUS/THAT’S WHEN THE
TAXI MAN TURNED ON THE RADIO
The girls sing to Beca, nudging her to join.
ALL EXCEPT BECA (CONT’D)
AND A JAY-Z SONG WAS ON!
AND THE JAY-Z SONG WAS ON!
Beca can’t help but join in at the cheesy song. It’s just one of those moments. All the girls sing together, momentarily forgetting their problems.
BECA PLUS ALL
SO I PUT MY HANDS UP/THEY’RE
PLAYING MY SONG/AND THE
BUTTERFLYS FLY AWAY
USE SETTING TO PROGRESS THE STORY AND EXPLORE CHARACTER — This is one of the more memorable “small” moments from the film. A touching, visual way to show that though Beca keeps others at arm’s length, the Bellas are getting through to her; they bring out the fun in Beca and, in return, the audience likes her more. What is so brilliant about this scene is that it is all done with singing, the focus of Pitch Perfect.
Cannon uses specific song choices that fit the moment and progress the story. In the beginning of the film, the Barden Bellas sing boring songs while their competitors give all flash and no substance with songs like “Right Round,” which stir up the audience for a reaction. And the competition always ends up winning this way…
…until the end of the film, after Beca has been given the pitch pipe and together they create a mashup of songs that are both entertaining and meaningful. Again, Cannon uses songs strategically — i.e. Beca including and singing a song from The Breakfast Club for Jesse, the man she’s trying to win back. This element of love heightens the Bellas’ musical performance and resonates emotionally with the audience.
Comedy can be extremely difficult to get right, especially in the current PC culture where audiences get offended about the silliest aspects of a film. Through her excellent script, Cannon shows us how to write effective comedy with alts and how to use setting to progress the story.
Thank you for reading! Feel free to share your thoughts in a comment or message.