This is not a surprising thing: Bumper Allen, the leader of the Treblemakers and main bad guy in 2012’s Pitch Perfect (which sees its third installment, Pitch Perfect 3, hit theaters Friday), was kind of a toad. He was arrogant, and rude, and selfish, and a coward, and a dorky guy who thought he was cool (which is way less charming than a cool guy who thinks he’s a dork). There’s a part where he throws a burrito at a woman from a moving bus while she’s getting ready to pump gas. There’s another part where a guy comes up to him to express his admiration for Bumper and the Treblemakers and Bumper calls him weird and then shoos him away like you would a rodent. The first time we hear him talk it’s to tell the Bellas, their rival a cappella group that is preparing to go on stage, “Good luck out there. Seriously. You girls are awesome … ly horrible. I hate you. Kill yourself. Girl powerrrrrrr. Sisters before misterrrrrrrrs.” It’s all bad.
But here’s a thing that is surprising: Bumper Allen, the leader of the Treblemakers and main bad guy in 2012’s Pitch Perfect, was an exceptional talent. He was a magnetic performer, and a smart tactician, and a masterful manipulator, and, above all other things, a massive winner.
It’s easy to watch Pitch Perfect and miss catching that Bumper is such a winner, mostly because of three reasons:
- The movie doesn’t center around Bumper. It centers around Beca, a college freshman who, in addition to being very likable, is also a terrific singer and mix composer. Her endless affability pulls the spotlight away from Bumper and onto herself.
- Jesse, Beca’s love interest and star new recruit for the Treblemakers, is so overwhelmingly charming that he ends up tidal waving everyone off the screen when he shows up. (He’s a cool guy who thinks he’s a dork, as it were.) And there are only a handful of instances when we see Bumper without also seeing Jesse, what with them both being in the Treblemakers, and so after about five seconds your brain just instantly (and incorrectly) reframes everything to make it so that Jesse is the leader of the Treblemakers instead of Bumper, thus effectively rendering Bumper invisible.
- Literally everyone else in the movie seems more chill to hang out with than Bumper, and so even when he does have a scene where he’s a primary part, he’s being so (purposely) repulsive that you end up choosing to try to ignore him, same as you would a weird odor that came wafting across the room every so often if you were in a nice restaurant.
While all of that is happening, meanwhile, obscured by a fog of hate and antipathy, Bumper is guiding the Treblemakers to victory after victory after victory after victory.
The movie opens at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (the ICCAs), which, as far as the movie is concerned, is the most important a cappella competition in the country for college kids. Bumper, the spine of the Treblemakers, glides across the stage during the show, hamming up his performance just enough to make it undeniable. “Now this is exactly the type of performance you would expect to see at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella,” glows event commentator John Smith. Bumper keeps singing and the crowd keeps getting louder and louder for him, and for the Treblemakers. “Boy, these Barden University Treblemakers always thrill the judges, and the ladies in the room cannot get enough,” says Smith, and by the end of the night the Treblemakers have won the national championship.
A note: What’s important to know, and what we end up finding out by watching the Bellas as they go from second-class to A1 performers, is that the leader of each a cappella group (Aubrey for the Bellas, Bumper for the Treblemakers) is the one responsible for deciding song selection, song-mix execution, choreography, wardrobe, practice schedule, new-member selections, and general-member singing assignments. For a group to be successful, its leader has to be good at all of those things.
Another note: Bumper is definitely a doof, but you get a sense of how maniacal of a competitor he is when, during a passing scene, you see him telling a guy that hearing him sing offkey made him want to choke him.
And a final note: You also get a sense of how strictly Bumper runs the Treblemakers during their new-member selection process. Following the open auditions, during which we see handfuls of people perform to try to earn a spot in a group, the Bellas select 10 new members. The Treblemakers, however, select only two.
The second competition we see all the a cappella groups in is the Riff-Off, a thing where a group will start singing a song, then another group will interrupt them using a word from a song they’re singing to jump into another song. If a group uses an incorrect word or sings a song that isn’t part of whatever category of songs it is that they’re supposed to be singing (which is chosen at random), then it gets eliminated. And if a group can finish an entire song without anyone else being able to correctly jump in, then they win. When the Riff-Off starts (the category is “Ladies of the ’80s”), Bumper runs out and starts everything off because he understands it’s important to land the first punch. (The fact that he, a college-aged man in 2012, has a song ready to go for the Ladies of the ’80s category speaks to his preparedness.) As the Riff-Off continues, each of the other groups eventually falls off, until it’s only the Treblemakers and the Bellas left. And as the two groups battle back and forth, Bumper, grooming his soldiers for an eventual return to the ICCAs, lets Donald (his second-in-command) and Jesse (his star pupil) take over, jumping in only to offer an ad-lib or supporting vocals. The Bellas eventually sing an incorrect word, and the Treblemakers, once again behind Bumper’s stewardship, walk away as victors.
The third competition of the movie is the new a cappella season’s first regional competition (a group has to qualify in the top two to advance to the second regional, and then a group has to finish in the top two there to advance to the championships). When the Treblemakers get called to the stage, one of the commentators (Gail) mentions how they’re likely going to cruise to the championships again, to which John responds, “Absolutely, they always are, Gail. My favorite, and everyone’s favorite.” Their performance starts, and it’s electric. They’ve got new music, new choreography, new everything, and I’ll remind you here again that Bumper is responsible for all of it. They win the regional (the Bellas finish second), and then they’re off to the second regional.
At the second regional, it plays out essentially exactly as the first one (the Treblemakers win again, and so they’ve earned their spot in the championships). And what happens after that, really, is what lets you know that Bumper is elite.
The weekend before the ICCAs, Bumper gets called and asked to sing backup on John Mayer’s new album in Los Angeles. It’s a great opportunity, but the thing of it is he has to leave immediately to do so, meaning he’ll have to miss the ICCAs. When one of the members of the Treblemakers brings it up to him, Bumper considers it for a second, then says, “Sorry, buddies, but I won that shit like 100 times, so, I’m outta here.” Then he leaves.
At Jesse’s suggestion, the Treblemakers replace him with the guy from the beginning of the movie whom Bumper called weird (the guy’s name is Benji). And Benji is a very good singer, but he’s no Bumper, and neither is anyone else on the Treblemakers, and so for the first time all movie (and, presumably, for the first time in years), the Treblemakers lose. (The Bellas win the championship.)
The Treblemakers were unbeatable with Bumper as their leader, and then they lost the first competition they participated in without him. (And what’s more: We find out in Pitch Perfect 2, which takes place three years after the Bellas won the championship, that they’ve not lost since then, which means that the Treblemakers have not won since then. They lost every single championship after Bumper left. That’s too big of a sample size to be a coincidence.)
Bumper is a toad, yes. And he is the worst, yes. And he is, as Aubrey described him, a “garbage dirtball.” But he is also a winner.
Winners don’t have to be liked. Only respected.