by Michael Sarinsky
Cinephiles gearing up for the release of “Pitch Perfect 2” may be unaware that the original movie (which, no jokes, makes my desert-island top five) is based off a non-fiction book by Elle magazine writer Mickey Rapkin. Published in 2008, Pitch Perfect documents Rapkin’s yearlong foray into the delightfully raucous worlds of three college a cappella troupes: the University of Virginia Hullabahoos, the Tufts Beelzebubs, and Divisi of the University of Oregon. (Fans of the form will recognize those groups as topnotch mainstays of the undergraduate music scene. Newcomers should take a quick diversion to YouTube, right now.)
Campus novels rarely succeed. Or at least, credit where it’s due to Nabokov and McCarthy, they rarely succeed any longer. But Rapkin captures something essential about the college experience that, for instance, Eugenides and Harbach missed with their recent attempts at fictionalizing campus life. Any worthwhile portrait of higher education has to foreground a sense of diffused responsibility, of evolving talent obscured by lingering adolescence. And Rapkin’s bumblebee-in-the-punch-bowl journalistic style perfectly captures that tone. Notice how he adjusts the lens when discussing the genre-founding Beelzebubs:
The sale was contingent on the new owner leasing the house to the Bubs for the 2005-2006 school year… Until, that is, Sean Zinsmeister ’06 decided to have a barbeque. (“I’m not talking about this,” Zinsmeister says.) Details are scarce. What we do know is that sometime around two in the morning a gust of wind knocked over the barbeque, spilling hot coals and ash onto the wood deck… No one was hurt, though all were shaken as they watched their beloved Bubs house burn to the ground.
Those hoping only for lighthearted immaturity and youthful braggadocio, though, will be disappointed, because the book also movingly portrays the sentimentality that accompanies finally growing up. When Marissa, a Divisi senior, replays her family’s home movies as part of her thesis project, the entire group attends and shares a moment of tenderness. “Santa looks like [her grandfather,] Papou!” Marissa’s younger sister says in the video, taped at Christmastime. “Why does Santa look like Papou?”
Marissa grabs her sister by the ponytail and yanks hard. “Leave him alone!” she says. “It’s Santa! It’s Santa!”
Marissa stops the video and turns to the audience. When she looks back on that moment, she’s still not sure where it came from. But Marissa turned to her little sister, pulling on her ponytail even as the little girl repeated, again, “Why does Santa look like Papou!”
“Because Santa looks like the people you love,” Marissa said.
I was a senior in college while Rapkin was collecting the book’s anecdotes, during the 2006-2007 school year, and now it reads to me as a summation of my college experience. Though I can’t hold a note, I see myself reflected in the personalities that Rapkin tracks. It’s a mirror to a certain age group, the internet-boom into Iraq-war generation that learned about sex from Monica Lewinsky and now gets nostalgic for slow news days. Rapkin’s subjects included future lawyers, bankers, doctors, consultants, and actors. But they weren’t citizens yet. Nor was I. We sang because, for four years, we were under the protective college bubble that gave us the unfortunate liberty not to care.
This summer’s bloated sequel may or may not live up to the standards set by its predecessor. I’ll be among the first to know, in a Times Square theater on opening night, blocks away from where the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella finals are hosted each spring, also recommended. But in any case, it’s likely to lack the strange and perhaps embarrassing emotional force of the acca-awesome book that spawned the franchise.