When Straight No Chaser formed at Indiana University in 1996, Randy Stine knew that he and his fellow vocalists were starting from scratch. Unlike many Ivy League schools, Bloomington’s campus didn’t have an a cappella scene, so the group had to get creative to build one. In between late-night rehearsals and sourcing sheet music, they’d put up concert posters that never betrayed the fact that the music was being made sans instruments. “We tried to make it more like a college band. That way, people didn’t come with a preconceived notion that they weren’t going to like it,” Stine says. “We never overhyped the fact that it was just singing at first.”
To appease new listeners, the group stuck with easily identifiable classics (Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” and Toto’s “Africa,” for example) that would appeal to multiple demographics before evolving into more complex, multi-song medleys. Their mashups of the era’s boy-band pop songs eventually gained traction and sold out shows, leading to small gigs throughout Chicago. “That helped snowball things into the fall,” Stine says, when they began recording an album and then placed second in the 1998 National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella at Carnegie Hall. “We all graduated around 2000, but we always set it up to be a legacy group from the very start. … I always hoped we’d do something again.”
That chance came in 2008, after Stine uploaded their college performance of “The 12 Days of Christmas” to YouTube. The grainy video of the 10-man outfit harmonizing and interweaving holiday standards had earned 8 million views during a time when amateur singing had exploded thanks to reality TV competitions like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Putting his faith in a cappella’s growing regard, Atlantic Records chief executive Craig Kallman, who’d seen the video, reunited the group and signed Straight No Chaser to a five-album deal. “We had people who saw past this being a total joke and failure and really did invest in us and found what about us would appeal to a broader audience,” Stine says. “Even if it wasn’t a publicly acknowledged thing, maybe this was a business model.”
Several years later, Hollywood bet on it, too, hitching its wagon to a cappella’s growing popularity and catapulting the voice-only genre onto the big screen with Pitch Perfect. Released wide in theaters on October 5, 2012, the musical comedy (based in part on Mickey Rapkin’s 2008 book) boasted only a few recognizable stars and told the story of the fictional Barden University Bellas, an all-female a cappella group on a quest for competitive singing glory. Leaning into a sports-movie blueprint, director Jason Moore repackaged familiar and newly released pop songs into dynamic, noninstrumental arrangements, authentically capturing the geeky charm and serious pipes of collegiate groups across the country. “People had just not seen a cappella done [in movies],” says executive producer Max Handelman. “I think the participatory element is what sets it apart. It’s not rock stars on stage. It’s not a musical biopic. These are real, relatable characters in college.”
Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign, Pitch Perfect more than tripled its budget at the domestic box office, an unlikely showing that turned Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson into stars and prompted Universal to green-light two sequels in the next five years. In that time, a cappella awareness and participation—specifically within national tournaments and through professional groups like Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix—increased steadily, chipping away at the genre’s privileged, nerdy labels and paving wider access for music industry opportunity. On Wednesday, Pitch Perfect joins the streaming landscape with the Peacock spinoff series Bumper in Berlin, just another testament to how the a cappella world blew up more than a decade ago.
The idea for an a cappella movie started with a 30 Rock joke. In the middle of a writers meeting, Kay Cannon couldn’t help but laugh at a line about the character Toofer’s participation in a Harvard all-male choir. And when showrunner Robert Carlock quickly informed her that Ivy League a cappella was a real subculture, Cannon was stunned. “I was like, ‘Wait, what?’” she says. “I looked over the room to [writer] Brett Baer, and Brett says to me, ‘There’s your movie.’ I didn’t know anything about it, but I had in my mind that this could really be something.”
To Cannon’s credit, in the early 2000s a cappella had mostly existed in the white-male-dominated spaces of prestigious universities. The Yale Whiffenpoofs, founded in 1909, were among the first groups to perform without instruments, and it took almost 30 more years for the first all-female group, Smith College’s Smiffenpoofs, to form. The genre morphed from barbershop quartets in the middle of the century to pop-centric covers, with only a few professional groups, including the Manhattan Transfer, Take 6, and Rockappella, breaking through between the 1970s and ’80s.
Despite some unsuccessful pitches to various production companies—including one that would’ve featured John Krasinski and Jason Sudeikis playing brothers on competing a cappella teams—Cannon refused to shake the concept. “People kind of looked at me like, ‘It’s weird,’” she says. “I didn’t get a lot of traction, [but] I couldn’t let it go.” Around the same time, in 2006, Handelman’s agent gave him the proposal for Pitch Perfect, a new book by Mickey Rapkin, which seemed up his alley. After all, Handelman and his wife, actress Elizabeth Banks, had attended the University of Pennsylvania together and distinctly remembered the musical scene there. “The day you arrive on campus at Penn, you’re greeted by a cappella groups performing,” he says.
As he and Banks began considering projects for their newly formed production company, they kept returning to Rapkin’s reporting and “believed that the world of a cappella was ripe for a comedy with underdog characters,” Handelman says. To bid for a book option, they just needed a writer, so Banks called Cannon, whom she had previously worked with, and pitched the script idea. “She was like, ‘Max had found this book. Would you be interested in writing the movie?’” Cannon recalls. “I was like, ‘Of course! I’ve only been talking about this for a year and a half.’”
The next weekend, she and Banks conceived a Bring It On–inspired idea. To make an impression on Universal president of production Peter CKramer, the two brought in a pitch pipe and mimed song-and-dance numbers. It worked. Having secured the option, Cannon dove into Rapkin’s book, which followed several collegiate groups on the road to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. “The research that became apparent was the underdog nature of the all-female groups,” Cannon says. “So I approached it as a sports movie.” When Moore signed on to direct, the pair began refining the script. “Kay’s voice was very much as unique and singular as her voice ends up in the movie,” Moore says. “I think the thing that defined it for me was [these characters] are certainly outsiders, but they were always just people who love to sing.”
While building an a cappella movie seemed daunting, Handelman felt confident about their timing. “We were developing the show in the wake of the geek chic moment that Judd [Apatow] had really burst into the world,” Handelman says. “In Superbad, Michael Cera’s character is going off to Dartmouth College, and that guy is probably going to join an a cappella group.” What intrigued Moore was the way that American Idol and its imitators had saturated living rooms with everyday people singing covers of pop songs. But when Glee, a new series about high school singers, premiered in the fall of 2009 and quickly gained a massive audience, Universal grew concerned and paused the movie’s development. “It was this paradoxical thing,” Handelman says. “[Glee] proved there’s an audience and demand for this, but on the other hand, the studio was not unreasonably saying, ‘We’re not going to make a movie while Glee is the biggest show in America.’ It was very frustrating.”
The project was shelved for more than a year. Then, in May 2011, the team scheduled a meeting with Universal. Moore created a sizzle reel of movies, everything from Clueless to Animal House, to explain the tone and spirit of the comedy he was attempting to make, hoping Kramer could distinguish between a group of sanitized singing high-schoolers and their raunchier college counterparts. “Glee went on to do much racier songs, but in the early years, it stuck to pretty squeaky-clean songs,” Moore says. “That’s how we carved out a corner.” Also helping their cause? Bridesmaids had just exploded at the box office on its opening weekend, all but convincing Cramer to finally begin production. “It was like, OK, here’s the next all-female ensemble comedy,” Handelman says.
Ahead of filming later that year, Moore began a large casting search, auditioning actors by testing their vocal chops and comedic personalities. “It was really about finding people who were not scared of singing, and who could be funny while they were singing,” he says. “That narrowed the list.” Though Handelman remembers a majority of actors attempting Adele and Lady Gaga songs, the eventual cast—which also included Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, and Ben Platt, among many others—selected distinct, nonobvious tunes. As for Adam Devine, he went into his audition thinking Pitch Perfect was a baseball movie. “I show up and all these people aren’t even stretching, they don’t look like they’re ready to field any ground balls,” says Devine, who eventually, and very unpreparedly, sang a compilation of the Full House and Family Matters theme songs. “I had no idea how I got it.”
Kendrick also introduced herself with something off-kilter, which ended up defining her role as the movie’s skeptical protagonist and audience surrogate. After reading some scenes of dialogue, the actress pulled out a plastic cup, placed it on a table ledge, and began tapping a beat to accompany her rendition of an old folk song she’d seen on YouTube. The performance, eventually called “Cups” and later used in the movie’s own audition scene, left Moore, Handelman, and Banks “enchanted and charmed,” the director remembers. “You see the world of a cappella through her. Therefore, even if you don’t like it, you can still be entertained by it.”
“As this outsider, Beca is articulating what a lot of people think about it,” Cannon adds. “But then she gets inside of it, and as soon as you see the talent of all these kids, you get swept up in it.”
Nearly halfway through Pitch Perfect, four a cappella teams meet inside an emptied-out swimming pool. As a chance to prepare for the ICCA regionals, the Bellas, the Treblemakers (their all-male rivals), the High Notes, and BU Harmonics compete in a “riff-off,” trading bars of pop songs by matching the beginnings and endings of lyrics until all but one team gets eliminated. Each group has a chance to shine, quixotically improvising harmonies and beatboxing to everything from “Mickey” to “Like a Virgin,” but it’s not until Beca begins rapping Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” with a full echoing chorus behind her that the movie proves it chops and elevates a cappella into something cool. “It’s just magic,” says music supervisor Sarah Webster. “It’s the best scene.”
As the through line between every Pitch Perfect movie, the riff-off epitomizes the movie’s magnetic musical appeal, fitting nine songs into a five-minute showcase of compositional and vocal agility. Riff-offs didn’t exist in real life, but Cannon liked the idea of mining old improv games like “last word, first word” and merging them with the spontaneity of rap battles and a cappella hootenannies. “In improv you do a lot of that stuff, trying to finish each other’s sentences in warm-up games and that kind of thing,” Devine says. “It made a lot of sense.”
Like most of the performance scenes, the riff-off required dexterous arrangements and plenty of licensing luck. Originally, Cannon filled the script with 18 placeholder songs, but “the categories changed based on the songs we could afford,” says Moore, who eventually decided on themes like “Ladies of the ’80s” and “Songs About Sex.” “We would go back to the list and pull songs that were musically compatible and would try and clear them. It was a huge puzzle to figure out.” And since these events had never been tried, music producers like Ed Boyer, a Tufts Beelzebubs alum who was brought in to help mix and arrange each group’s parts, had the added challenge of guiding actors on set through their musical transitions with a playback machine. “Sometimes, you might have 50 people to look at to make sure nobody’s doing something crazy,” Boyer says. “The nice thing is that actors are good at taking direction.”
These kinds of challenges and pivots cropped up heavily throughout a movie predicated on unique medleys and relevant song selections. For the ICCA finals, in which Beca implements her DJ mashup skills to curate a compilation of contemporary and old-school pop songs, Cannon envisioned Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” as the emotional centerpiece. “I had pictured that the Bellas were lifting Beca up like a radio,” she says. Then they learned the price of the song’s publishing rights. The studio scanned its own catalog and came back with Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” another ’80s staple that closes out The Breakfast Club. “I thought that would be perfect for it,” says Moore, who even incorporated the movie into Beca’s romantic subplot. “You try to pick songs that are great and stand on their own and also [have] a story element.”
To look like competent a cappella singers, the cast engaged in a monthlong bootcamp before shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, practicing their individual parts and learning the matching choreography in daily dance rehearsals. Along with Deke Sharon, Ben Bram, and a few other arrangers, Boyer worked in the studio to put together sheet music and record individual vocal tracks that the actors could mimic. “We would rehearse together so they would have the experience of singing it all in the same room,” Boyer says, “but when you’re actually tracking their part, you get them one by one so you have the separation to control the mix.” In a short amount of time, everyone had taken on the characteristics of their respective groups, so that “by the end of shooting, the Treblemakers would often just start singing their songs between takes,” Boyer adds. That chemistry and skill proved invaluable on a low-budget production that relied on its cast to adapt quickly to song changes and new routines. As Handelman attests, the licensing negotiations and production hurdles became “a total headache,” but he credits Moore and the music team for having a unified and flexible approach to capture the realism and essence of a cappella under the bright lights. “We were moving at such a quick pace that there was no time or space for anybody to be bent out of shape,” Webster says. “The amount of music and the caliber of music that we got in there is out of this world.”
In 2003, Amanda Newman became the executive director of Varsity Vocals, the organization that hosts the ICCAs each year. As a former member of No Strings Attached at the University of Illinois, she dedicated herself to building up the competition and evangelizing the merits of a cappella as an art form. When Universal approached her about incorporating her tournament into a new movie, she lit up at the prospect of mainstream promotion, but also grew concerned that a movie could just as easily lampoon the medium. “I got to see parts of the script just to make sure it was respectful,” she says. “The whole time I was like, ‘Are they making fun of this? I can’t tell.’”
Eventually, Newman took on a more active role as a consultant, providing Cannon with specific anecdotes from the championships, guiding the filmmakers with specific aesthetic choices, and even making a cameo as a judge. “You wake up one day walking into a movie set that looks exactly like your office. You’re like, ‘Where am I? How did they do that?’” she says. Once the cameras began rolling, any initial fears subsided, and she felt confident that Pitch Perfect would accurately reflect the quality and spirit of her annual tradition. “It was like watching the best a cappella performances you’ve ever seen,” Newman says. “I think they did an amazing job capturing just how much the groups truly care about it.”
Audiences agreed. Though Pitch Perfect earned just $24 million over its rolled-out opening weekends, it remained in theaters until the middle of February, amassing another $91 million at the domestic and global box office as a long-gestating hit. The soundtrack peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard 200, and almost a year after the movie’s release, Kendrick’s interpretation of “Cups” topped the adult contemporary charts. At a time when pop culture had begun embracing a cappella and amateur singing, Pitch Perfect squeezed tighter and seized on a miniature aca-moment. “You hadn’t seen this collection of specific characters,” Handelman says. “It was a combination of the irreverent tone of the comedy and then just combining that with the sheer tonnage of incredible music, which we were presenting in a new way.”
And as Pitch Perfect transformed from a tiny little comedy into a franchise featuring members of the Green Bay Packers, a cappella grew too. Participation in the ICCAs had been steadily building throughout the mid-2000s—the number of groups increased from fewer than 100 to almost 250 by 2012—but the a cappella scene “always seemed like such an insular community,” Newman says. Then, Pitch Perfect premiered and “there was an exponential bump,” which has since plateaued (nearly 400 groups from universities across the U.S., Canada, and U.K. now participate) and “helped us maintain a sense of cool.” Around the same time, because of the genre’s popularity, Newman started a high school tournament that’s become as big as the college events. “You don’t need expensive costumes, you don’t need risers, you don’t need a band or fancy microphone equipment,” Newman says. “This is something you can do in your street clothes.”
“There’s definitely been an upward trend,” says Stine, who has gotten to meet a lot of younger a cappella fans throughout Straight No Chaser’s concert tours. “I know people that picked where they went to college based on the a cappella scene,” he says. “We have kids come through saying, ‘I’m leaning toward Indiana, because I want to audition for the group that’s there. I’m counting on getting into that.’” Boyer has even noticed an influence outside the a cappella sphere. “People would hire two groups to come do a riff-off at their bar mitzvah and we’d have to say, ‘Actually, that’s not a thing that happens,’” Boyer says. “Maybe we could prearrange it and rehearse it and make it seem [real], because it’s not something that can happen spontaneously.”
Along with Straight No Chaser, Boyer has also continued mixing albums for Pentatonix, the most successful a cappella group of the past decade. The Texas-based group, which won the third season of The Sing-Off in 2011, earned Grammys for three consecutive years starting in 2015—their medley of Daft Punk covers won Best Arrangement and has amassed nearly 100 million Spotify streams—and has rode the a cappella cultural wave to numerous televised performances and a loyal YouTube fan base. “The internet, Glee, The Sing-Off all came together and propelled [a cappella] to be this thing that was in front of people,” Boyer says. “It was all these things happening at once.”
As the movie industry began pivoting harder into streaming at the end of the last decade, Handelman and Banks, the shepherds of this unlikely IP, began looking for their own spinoff opportunities. “We had always had a particular love for the utter weirdness and specificity of the German group DSM,” Handelman says, referencing the sequels’ villains. It soon spawned an idea: “We should go make a show set in Berlin, where a cappella happens to be big in real life.” The initial urge might have been to engineer a prequel series that followed the younger Bellas, but Handelman was adamant about exploring more of the main cast members, primarily Devine’s Bumper Allen, who had shown up only briefly after the original movie. “We pitched to the studio: ‘It’s Emily in Paris meets Loki,’” Handelman laughs. “And they’re like, ‘OK, we trust you guys.’”
Though it doesn’t incorporate any multiverse madness, Bumper in Berlin captures the movies’ comic tone, musical ingenuity, and sense of camaraderie, and its international locale underscores the way that a cappella has continued to evolve in and outside of the Pitch Perfect cinematic universe, as Handelman jokingly calls it. “It used to be this very white, privileged, academic thing, and that’s not the case anymore,” Newman says. “There are groups that are now gender-inclusive, there are trans people in the group, they’re supportive and encouraging of each other with less rivalry. I think that has to do with this generation.”
The surge in diversity has also affected the music itself, as many groups, including Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix, have attempted to break the mold with more original songs, proving their own unique material and makeup. Though, as Newman warns, “most pop songs are written by professional music writers in a room of 20 people.” Boyer, who has occasionally judged ICCA competitions, remains wary about a cappella’s broader acceptance, visibility, and existence outside of college campuses, noting a general loss of creativity and rise in homogeneous-sounding groups. But it’s “a good thing that people are singing together more,” he says, acknowledging that there’s a reason why people continue to listen to a style of music that’s inherently vulnerable, even masochistic. “To say, ‘I’m going to do pop music with no instruments,’ is like saying, ‘I’m going to build a house with no timber,’” he says. “Just the fact that somebody’s attempting it is super intriguing. You want to see what’s going to happen.”
While the genre’s future remains uncertain, the “PPCU” and its decade of influence is a reminder of just how far a cappella has come since Straight No Chaser was tricking people into showing up at their concerts. Recently, in the midst of the group’s 25th-anniversary tour, Stine recalls meeting a female fan’s husband in line after a show. Though most of the time women drive the ticket sales for their concerts, the man approached them with his arms full of CDs to purchase and ready for each member to sign the sleeves of his button-down. “We’re ruining a $120 shirt,” Stine says. “It’s amazing.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.