The night before she interviewed for the executive music producer job of Pitch Perfect, the 2012 comedy about the idiosyncratic world of collegiate a capella, Julianne Jordan got a surprise phone call from another music supervisor she knew, Julia Michels, up for the same job. “Did you read this script?” Michels remembers asking incredulously.
“Oh my God, I’m so glad you called, because I was just about to call you,” Jordan answered. “I’m not doing this by myself!”
They went in the next day and (successfully) pitched themselves as a team—for good reason. Music supervisors typically work in post-production with pre-existing tracks, but Pitch Perfect producers had to consider hundreds of tunes for its many musical moments—the sequel, out now, features more than 60 songs—and start the process of recording all-new versions before cameras start rolling. It’s a process that requires a lot of manpower: a team of 20 people, including producers, arrangers and editors, worked on Pitch Perfect 2‘s music. It’s also one that’s as important as the the script or the cast. Thanks in no small part to the music, the first film grossed $113 million worldwide, spawned a platinum soundtrack and turned Anna Kendrick into an unlikely chart-topper.
TIME spoke to executive music producers Jordan and Michels; director Elizabeth Banks; Universal Pictures’ president of music, Mike Knobloch; and star Anna Kendrick for a story in the May 25 issue of TIME (on stands now) about how the music in Pitch Perfect 2 came together. Here are some of the highlights from those interviews:
If you hear more dance music in Pitch Perfect 2, that’s intentional. “[The process] starts with what we call a listening party,” Banks says. “We just listening to things and talk more generally about sound, like the sound of Das Sound Machine, our new villain. We wanted to introduce more rock in the movie, a little more EDM.” Though everybody has opinions on what should go in the movie, the meetings don’t get particularly heated. “At the end of the day, I get to decide!” Banks laughs. “Everyone knows that.”
The cast has no formal involvement in picking the songs. That doesn’t stop some actors from trying, however. “I sent many emails to the music team, which I know I have no business doing,” Kendrick says. “Sometimes you feel strongly and can’t help yourself! I just shouldn’t have anybody’s email address, in fact.”
“Wrecking Ball” was an instant favorite for the opening scene. “I knew that I wanted Rebel doing that silks routine before we ever chose the music,” Banks says. “We brought Rebel to Cirque do Soleil in L.A. and made sure she could move around in those silks. Once we knew that she could, then it was all about, ‘What’s the funniest way to reintroduce Fat Amy to the world?’ Someone literally played ‘Wrecking Ball’ in the meeting and we all started laughing. When it hits you, that’s clearly the one.”
Kendrick wanted to sing a different song with Snoop Dogg during his cameo. “I was asking if I could sing something cooler than the song that I sang because it’s essentially a children’s song,” Kendrick says. “So that was a seriously embarrassing day to have to sing a children’s Christmas carol in front of Snoop, who is arguably the coolest man on the planet. He was incredibly chill and was just very cool, really funny, and had fingernail art, which was really exciting to me.”
Song selection is often a numbers game. “When you’re mashing up songs, an even beat does not mash well with an uneven beat,” Banks says. “127 [beats per minute] and 135 don’t match. If you have 135, you either need to half-time it or double-time it. It really comes down to a lot of math.”
The team recruited professional a capella musicians to help out. “We brought in special beatboxers—people that do this for a living—and some of them are on camera in the rival group,” Michels says. “We found some people on YouTube. They’re just amazing beatboxers that really helped fill out the arrangements.”
There isn’t much difference between real-life a capella and movie a capella. “The bells and whistles we put on [the songs] are maybe in some of the background vocals, but an a capella group could take what we did and sing it as well on stage,” Michels says. “The thing about a capella is you can’t hide behind the music.” With one exception, she notes: “An a capella group couldn’t do the choreography that they’re doing and probably sound as good.”
Songs occasionally get cut because there’s no one to sing them. “Sometimes we find that there’s no one we think is going to vocally knock it out of the park,” Banks explains. “We are always thinking about what is going to show off our stars. That was a big concern. Of course we want to set up everyone to win—we don’t want anyone to be challenged.”
Getting permission to use the songs can also be an obstacle. “The business and the mechanics of that can get very, very complicated,” Knobloch says. “Can we clear them affordably? Can we use them in the way that we’re proposing? Not just ‘Hey, can we use your song,’ but ‘Hey, can we use your song and mash it up with another song?'”
Every song has to help the story. But unlike traditional musicals, which rely on original lyrics, the music team looked for more subtle ways to advance the plot. “For us, it’s in the arrangements and the song choices, not so much what they’re singing,” Michels says. “If the Bellas are tight and their performance is supposed to be amazing, we look for songs that are exciting and melodic. In scenes when they’re supposed to fall apart, we might look for songs that are a little more discordant.” Adds Knobloch, “Sometimes it’s the body language and facial expressions of the caracters that tells the story.”
Kendrick says Pitch Perfect 2 taught her a lot about popular music. “There are definitely times when I feel really out of it,” Kendrick says. “I didn’t know [opening number] ‘We Got the World.’ I know that Icona Pop is a huge deal, but I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m just a loser.’ I would say about thirty percent of the songs we sing in this one I didn’t know, which is just a sign that I should get with the times.”
Putting together the riff-off is one of the hardest parts of the movie. “There’s 17 songs in the riff-off,” Knobloch says. “But if we tried even a few things for each of those spots, then it’s easily a hundred songs that we auditioned at some level, either around the table or sometimes in the studio.”
There’s a reason why the riff-off felt so dramatic. “The beats per minute of each section actually get faster so you are building the tension over the course of the scene, but it’s very subconscious if you’re not aware of how music gets put together,” Banks said. “We have to figure out how to build it musically for the music nerds that are going to watch the movie and are actually going to notice and care about that stuff.”
Ester Dean wanted to give Anna Kendrick another hit after “Cups.” “She said that she wanted me to do [closing-credits song] ‘Crazy Youngsters,’” Kendrick says. “I think she’s just so unbelievably next level, talented and inspiring. The fact that she even suggested it kept me on a high for about a week. But I’m really glad she’s singing it because her voice is just disgusting. It’s so much better than anybody else in the cast, if I’m perfectly honest.”
But the music team didn’t want to replicate “Cups,” either. “It’s like lightning in a bottle,” Jordan says. “It so rarely happens on movies that we didn’t want to do anything gimmicky in the second movie that would be like, ‘Ugh, they’re trying to do ‘Cups’ again!'” But when the script called for newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) to write an original song, they knew they had to come up with what would eventually become “Flashlight.” “If this character shows up and says, ‘I wrote this song,’ she can’t then blurt out a song that you know is an existing song in real life,” Knobloch says. “That would throw people.”
Sia and Sam Smith co-wrote “Flashlight.” “One of the things about the Pitch Perfect formula that works so well is there’s the thrill and exhilaration of ‘Oh my God, I know that song!'” Knobloch says. “When you throw an original song into the mix, the scales are not tipped in a good way. We knew we had to cook up something that was really, really strong.” To do that, Pitch Perfect 2 recruited some of the top songwriters in music now to help compose “Flashlight.” “Her pop sensibility just fits so well with this movie,” Jordan says of Sia.
There’s only one hard and fast rule about what songs go into the movie. “Everything has to have a sense of fun,” Banks says. “It’s not just that [the characters] are underdogs, they’re misfits, they’re all oddballs. That’s what we’ve found to be the Pitch Perfect brand: bringing together a very quirky group of people.”
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