Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Movie night gets two thumbs (mostly) down

The previews are over, you've turned your cell phone off, and now it's time for "Top Four Night, Q&A style!" Because if that lumbering ratings behemoth we call "American Idol" isn't going to spice up its themes, I'm at least going to try something a little different with mine:

Q: So, what did you really think of this year's "Songs of the Cinema" Top Four night?
A: Oh dear, that was an awfully long hour, wasn't it? In other words: I think I would have rather watched last year's lesser top four duet - that'd be Kris Allen and Danny Gokey with "Renegade" - on repeat for an hour straight than sit through that again. And, not to do this to you once more - because by now the fact that Season Nine doesn't quite stack up to Season Eight is sort of old hat, but - venture with me, if you will, back through the dusky sands of time to Top Four Night in 2009, which featured the following: Slash (!!!) as a mentor, Adam Lambert singing Led Zeppelin, Kris Allen rocking out to the Beatles and Allison Iraheta tearing into Janis Joplin. Even Danny Gokey's terrifying "Scream" - er, "Dream On," was at least memorably overreaching. And there was also one of the most awesome moments in an already-awesome season, the Adam/Allison "Slow Ride" duet. In fact, let me go watch my iTunes download of said duet right now, to cleanse my palate.

(Pause for two rocktacular minutes)

Ok, I'm back. And, alas, back to considering what we saw not last year, but last night. Instead of "ROCK NIGHT," we had "SCHLOCK NIGHT" - or, excuse me, I'm sorry, "Songs from the Movies." But really, what was this, the post-lunchtime shift on Boring 102.5 FM circa 1995, featuring all of your light adult favorites? Because instead of rock 'em sock 'em cinematic music action, we instead got Seal, Michael Jackson from his wispy-inspirational-ballads phase, Kenny Loggins, Bryan Adams and Simon and Garfunkel (who are legends, yes, but not as performed by Casey James, I'm afraid). In other words, we got served - served a big, steaming, stinky hunk of cheese, with only one brief, welcome respite.

Q: Surely you exaggerate. It couldn't have been that bad, could it?
A: "Everyone loves the movies," Seacrest said. No! Incorrect! Not on "American Idol," where "movies" for some reason usually translates to "treacle central," even though movies have provided plenty of great songs (say, "Purple Rain," to pull one out of a hat). I get that contestants are presented with a list of songs from which to pick, but they're not limited to that list - and the fact that this year's top four chose not to venture elsewhere when presented with some pretty sappy choices reflects poorly on them. "All of these faces came to this stage with a dream, but only one will see it realized," Seacrest also informed us at the top of the hour - but at this point, I'm wondering whether they can even articulate their dreams, outside of the legitimately talented but seemingly conflicted (as in, "Why am I on 'American Idol'?") Crystal.
In addition, the night brought the return of Jamie Foxx as a mentor, even though he just filled the same role on the show last year. He was again fine, but even so, bringing him back seemed to me to demonstrate laziness and a lack of originality. Not on Foxx's part, necessarily, I should note - kind of amusingly, he made up t-shirts reading "Contestant" and "Artist," and presented the remaining finalists with one or the other based on the quality of their mentoring-session performance.

Q: So Lee sang "Kiss From a Rose," and you know, that guy has a knack for putting a modern spin on all kinds of tunes. That sounds promising enough, right? 
A: Oh, it sounded promising - when all I'd heard was a clip of Lee rehearsing. (He earned an "artist" shirt, for the record.) Then the actual performance began, and he was both tentative and all over the place, singing too soft and off key, and only sparking during the chorus, with little conviction or meaning to any of it. Quoth Randy: "For me, you did nothing with that song. It was just ok." Simon labeled it "verging on karaoke" and said that Lee deserved the "contestant" t-shirt. For the first of what will be many times this evening, multiple judges question why the contestant picked the song. (Speaking of things that do not make sense, let us also point to Ellen's "critique" of "I think there could've been more done with the song. That said, you're so good!") Also: Lee needs a serious crash course from the Adam Lambert School of On-Stage Conversation because his attempted explanation of why he picked the song was waaaay empty, starting with "I felt good about it" and proceeding downhill from there.

Q: Did I hear this correctly? Did Mike really sing the song from "Free Willy"? 
A: He did, ladies and gentlemen, he did. It is otherwise known as Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There." Mike starts by saying that "A year ago, I made a goal to get into the top three." Overconfident much? Anyway, your first sign that things were probably not going to pan out was when Jamie Foxx tried to present Mike with the "contestant" shirt and he wouldn't accept it. But boy, he sure did prove he deserved it, because his rendition was irrelevant, something that even five background singers marching down the stairs behind him did not help. What it lacked in feeling, it definitely did not make up for in the vocal flourishes. "It didn't really take off anywhere," Randy said. Kara, meanwhile, did not feel goosebumps, and not just because she was dressed professionally, with sleeves. "What you did tonight, you could do in your sleep," she said. (Wait, Mike was awake during that performance?) And he didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from Simon, either: "At least you gave it 100 percent and I kinda felt that you meant it," the Acerbic One said, before being cut off by music. (And for the record, Simon, "Free Willy" is a movie about a killer whale. Or orca. Whatever.)

Q: Ok, but you said there was one good part of the evening - I mean, aside from the fact that it ended, I presume? When did that crop up, pray tell?
A: The third performance in, when Lee and Crystal performed "Falling Slowly" from "Once" - the tender duet that took the Oscar for Best Song a few years ago. Standing facing each other, each with an acoustic guitar, Lee and Crystal's voices melded pleasingly, save for a few off notes, mostly from Lee. (As a side note, this also demonstrated Crystal's superior skill.) More importantly, they sang with heart and feeling, playing off of each other, interacting and building the emotion of the song into a joyous finish - and making for one of the coolest, most genuine moments of the entire season. The judges all agreed, and semi-hilariously, Kara praised it; she called it a risky and obscure choice when Kris Allen performed it last year, but apparently in the intervening time it's become an Idol standby? On that note, Kris was the first contestant to sing the song on the show, but bringing up his also-excellent rendition would have required the judges to, well, mention Kris Allen, and we all know how they feel about doing that. Anyway, as duets go, this was more Adam-and-Allison than the alternative: "Lee's my musical crush - I told him that in Chicago, when I was sitting next to him at auditions," Crystal joked.

Q: Casey performed "Mrs. Robinson"? Let me guess: The judges cracked wise - or, what they thought was wise - making cougar jokes at Kara's expense? 
A: Right you are, savvy viewer, because we couldn't have seen that coming FIVE HUNDRED MILES AWAY!

Q: Er, what about the performance? 
A: Playing with a mandolin was a cool touch, but otherwise, sitting in that awkward kind of swaying-audience-pit-area, Casey just kind of faded into the song, singing lackadaisically to an arrangement that was kind of musically same-y, robbing the song of its cleverness and spirit. I was left unsure of what he was trying to do, and why, for that matter, and the judges wondered the same thing. "Why did you choose that song?" Randy said. I mean, it wasn't completely abysmal, but what was the point? Said Simon: "I do think there've been some very strange song choices tonight, and that was one of them."

Q: Tell me, did you not die a little inside when Ryan Seacrest said, "Coming up, it's Crystal and the classic song from 'Caddyshack'"?
A: Yes. I cannot tell a lie, I was concerned. Of all the songs to pick, she goes for, well...I mean, even Seacrest was skeptical: "The judges have been tough on your song choice, and you're going with a song from 'Caddyshack'?"

Q: You're referring to "I'm Alright," by Kenny Loggins?
A: I know, cue the "Yacht Rock" references, right?

Q: "Yacht Rock"? Not so much in this case. Did you know that "I'm Alright" can actually be construed as a defiant, riot-grrl anthem?
A: Huh?

Q: Didn't you hear how Crystal tried to remake this grade-A slice of Velveeta - with a bit of a snarl, a bit of an angry edge, playing her guitar, with a percussionist standing nearby onstage and an almost-country guitar sound in the background? 
A: Oh, I heard that. She threw everything she had at that de-cheesing effort. It was, well, a little strange, to say the least. But unlike anyone else last night, she actually tried to make something of her song. She played it with feeling, and after a couple tentative weeks, her voice was most definitely back. So, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She's still miles above everyone else, and I hope the voters reward her for it. The judges said she took the song and made it better, but given the song in question, I am not sure how high a bar that was. "After that performance, you, Crystal, are back in the game," Simon proclaimed. Probably so - was she ever really out of it? - but it's so much easier to get back in the game when your opponents keep stumbling. And also, really, I can understand "Free Willy," but really, Simon Cowell has never seen "Caddyshack"? That sounds like a man card violation. I mean, even Crystal had seen "Caddyshack," dude.

Q: But on to something really important. Did you see Crystal's boyfriend's pants?
A: Yes, I did. They were kind of amazing - American flag print and all - although his ensemble, as a whole, made it look like he'd just arrived from volleyball practice.

Q: So the night ended there, right? 
A: Sadly, no - we still had one more duet to go, and it was a strange yet predictable one: Casey and Mike singing Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman." It did feature fine guitar playing from Casey, but that couldn't compensate for the fact that he and Mike hardly sang together - they more switched off verses then actually dueted - and when they did, on the chorus, their voices didn't really mesh. The judges, nonetheless, praised it, noting along the way that the duets were far better than the solo performances tonight (indeed, they were, but again, only compared to the baffling standard set by said solo performances). Another salient judges' quip from this one: "As a matter of fact, yes, I have loved a woman," Ellen says. Hah.

Q: Whew, that's over. But who's going home?
A: If I had to guess, maybe Casey, though Mike probably deserves it just as much. So, yeah. Roll credits on THAT. Time to go listen to the new M.I.A. single.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion....they should all go home tonight and call this season OVER. And if they can't find any better talent next year, I would just end the show for good. This season has been a nightmare!