At the Movies

Top Gun

At the Movies

Historians may disagree, but I’ve long hypothesized that man invented music a way of wooing women.

While serenades may not always work, there’s a reason that singing to a crush, a date, or a lover remains a classic element of courtship that spans cultures and generations. The reason is embodied in Top Gun’s most iconic scene, when Tom Cruise and friends put the moves on via their rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” The a cappella performance is simultaneously crude, unpolished, charming, and fun—all the essential elements of a true-to-life serenade.

Superbad

At the Movies

At it’s best, a cappella can come across as simultaneously spontaneous and polished. At it’s worst, well, you get something like this.

While Michael Cera has proven himself as an adequate vocalist in other films (see the closing moments of Juno, in Superbad he reinforces his more established reputation as a master of awkward comedy, improvising a dreadful lead vocal, backed by an a cappella band of untrained, stoned singers. No, this is not a cappella at its best, and that’s refreshing, in a sense, for demonstrating that great aca ain’t easy.

You Don’t Know Jack

At the Movies

HBO’s 2010 biopic, You Don’t Know Jack, tells the story euthanasia advocate and facilitator Jack Kevorkian. While the film might seem like an unlikely to feature the pitch perfect sounds of The Swingle Singers, their interpretation of “Organ Fugue” from Fantasia is pivotal to the close of the film. The screen turns to white, the a cappella comes in, and we transition to the image of Kevorkian riding a bicycle down a sunny, faded road, wearing a powdered wig and period robe as the credits roll. The infusion of a cappella communicates a certain sense of whimsy and quirkiness intrinsic to this telling of the Kevorkian story, as well as subverting the viewer’s expectations, applying the human voice to a lyric-less piece of music.

The Muppets

At the Movies

This time, we spotlight The Muppets.

Like the films that preceded it, The Muppets, the 2011 addition to the eponymous clan’s catalog, highlighted its share of musical numbers. Perhaps the least expected of all was the entry of a barbershop quartet that gave an all-too-reluctant Jack Black a trim and shave whilst singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In a film chock full of silliness, this marks one of the most random points in the narrative—sans any real context, rhyme or reason. And perhaps that’s what’s best about it. In this sampling of four-part vocal harmony, The Muppets communicated some of the quirky, nonsensical fun of a cappella, more particularly barbershop, to a general audience.

Wedding Crashers

At the Movies

This time, we spotlight Wedding Crashers.

Plug your ears for the final seconds of the clip above, and you would miss the use of a cappella in this film. Nonetheless, if you do listen up—you’ll catch a snippet of The Swingle Singers “ba-ba”ing their way through Mozart’s “Horn Concerto No. 4.”

This may seem like a throw away audio effect, but don’t be too quick write off the impact of that moment in the film. We go from the dreary world of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn working as professional mediators (albeit, represented in a scene peppered with good humor) to the escapist fantasy of the same two men storming wedding after wedding, having a raucous good time under the noses of brides, grooms, and families who’ve never met them before. That bit of a cappella is cheery, manically high energy, and just quirky enough to set us up for the hour and a half of screwball comedy ahead of us.

The Other Guys

At the Movies

This time, we spotlight The Other Guys.

Sometimes, the brightest applications of a cappella in film occur when you least expect them. In this throw away bar scene, Will Ferrell’s character reveals unexpected roots in the community, joining a group of old-timers for a traditional sing-along (which, of course, features some delightfully absurd lyrics). This moment in the film is, at once, a nod to such traditions as well as the sort of quirky foray into musical flight of fancy, befitting of both a Ferrell film and the a cappella form.

Top Gun
Superbad
You Don’t Know Jack
The Muppets
Wedding Crashers
The Other Guys
The Break Up
American Pie
Slackers
The Social Network
White Men Can’t Jump
Step Brothers