Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes): How the music in 'Pitch Perfect' became aca-awesome

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Image Credit: Peter Iovino/Universal

This fall, the music of Pitch Perfect joined a crowded field of soundtracks that cover well-loved songs, but even with shows like Glee, Smash, American Idol and The Voice hitting the scene well before it, the movie that put the spotlight on collegiate a cappella made its mark. EW talked to director Jason Moore and music supervisors Julianne Jordan and Julia Michels about getting together the music for the film about an all-girls a cappella group determined to achieve national music competition glory. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes) coverage.

Song selection

Jordan and Michels had a major challenge ahead of them when they signed on to Pitch Perfect: working with a script in which the songs were all placeholders and not a sure deal, they had to choose and secure rights to what ended up being about 40 songs for the film. Michels calls the endeavor “a very big, tedious and fun process.” The requirements for each song: “It had to work right in the scene and tell the story, it had to translate to the actors on-camera, and it had to sound good a cappella,” she says.

That last condition was one that brought the two music supervisors on “a whole new adventure for us,” since Pitch Perfect was their first project working with a cappella music. They turned to the experts, five arrangers at the forefront of the contemporary a cappella frenzy, to craft voices-only renditions of songs like Flo Rida’s “Right Round” and Disco staple “Turn the Beat Around.” The Bellas’ songs were arranged by a team based in New York: Tom Kitt, who crafted new takes on Green Day songs in the Broadway musical American Idiot, and soundtrack writer-producer Ali Dee Theodore. Arranging the songs for the Bellas’ rival all-male a cappella group, the Treblemakers, were three men who worked on NBC’s recently canceled a cappella competition show, The Sing Off: Deke Sharon, considered the father of a cappella; Ed Boyer, an alum of the popular Tufts Beelzebubs, who also worked on Glee; and Ben Bram, an alum of USC’s SoCal VoCals.

How did the makers of Pitch Perfect pack 40-plus songs into a 110 minute-long movie? Mash-ups, riff-offs, and short renditions. Aside from being a good fit for DJ-wannabe Beca (Anna Kendrick), combining multiple songs into one performance or switching from song to song at lightning speed kept the film moving along at a pace just right for an edgy comedy.

“You never hear more than 30 seconds of any song,” Moore says. “The songs were delivery systems for character and comedy.”

The riff-off scene, which had the Bellas and the Treblemakers duking it out via songs like Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” ended up being the film’s most memorable moment of comedy-through-song. Blackstreet’s 1996 R&B track, which features Dr. Dre, is one inclusion Jordan is confident “they would never touch in Glee.”

Those riskier, less predictable song choices (including the never-before-used-in-a-movie “Blame It On the Boogie” by the Jackson 5), along with spot-on casting choices like Bridesmaids veteran Rebel Wilson, launched Pitch Perfect beyond the Glee-imitator status its pre-release buzz had labeled it with and to the level of sure-fire audience-pleaser.

Old School vs. New School

One of reluctant Bellas recruit Beca’s biggest battles in the movie is to convince the group to spice up its repertoire. “There’s nothing from this century on here,” she complains, when she sees a list of the group’s songs. And so the tug-of-war between the old-fashioned and new, square and hip begins.

Ace of Base’s 1993 pop ditty “I Saw The Sign” ended up being the song that epitomized the Bellas’ drab, old-school ways. But an earlier draft of the script reached further back into music history for the group’s set lists. “The original old-fashioned song for the girls was [1954’s] ‘Mr. Sandman.’ Nobody in 2011 knows that song,” Moore says. “So we went back to the ’90s, when those kids would have been six. That’s how we ended up with Ace of Base — that was our version of a lame song, even though it’s kind of an awesome song.”

The Bellas’ musical horizons begin to expand when Beca works newer music and dubstep-esque beats into their performances. Their climactic musical number at the National Competition features a mash-up of Jessie J’s “Price Tag,” Pitbull’s house hit “Give Me Everything” and — in a resonate moment for Beca and Jesse’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship — ’80s hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from The Breakfast Club.

Moore says that the recent popularization of electronic/house music wasn’t something he saw coming when he started working on the film about three years ago. He points out that now, “people actually know who David Guetta is. Years ago people couldn’t name a single DJ, and now they’re recognized as artists in their own right.” (For more on this trend, read EW’s recent analysis of how pop music is going electronic.)

And Top It Off With an Iconic ’80s Song

That moment when Jesse and Beca share a meaningful glance as she sings the first few notes of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” could have sounded far less John Hughes-y and far more Cameron Crowe-y. The script originally had Jesse trying to get Beca to watch Say Anything, not The Breakfast Club, with the final mash-up of course featuring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” But when Jordan and Michels got going on their massive song selection project, the change was made to the Brat Pack movie and, along with it, the Simple Minds song.

“We went though the songs that resonated for us in our generation’s movie-music moments when were kids, when we were teenagers. This one just can’t be denied,” Michels says.

Ultimately, the filmmakers realized how well the 1984 song fit into Pitch Perfect, which, like The Breakfast Club, is about a rag-tag group of young adults coming together despite their differences. “The more I listened to the lyrics of [‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’], the more it made sense for the movie,” Moore says.

And Pitch Perfect, don’t you worry — we won’t be forgetting about you anytime soon. (EW has dubbed it one of 15 future cult favorites of 2012.)

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

Read more about ‘Pitch Perfect’ and the Best & Worst of 2012:
From ‘Pitch Perfect’ to ‘Sparkle': The best (and worst) soundtracks of 2012
How ‘Pitch Perfect’ sang its way to the screen
Best of 2012: The year in lyrics, from Taylor Swift to Carly Rae

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