Friday, April 15, 2011

Movie music in name only

As I have probably not yet had occasion to share with you in this space, my wife and I are watching American Idol this season.

It's something we've never done before, but we figured, in its tenth season on the air, time to try something new, right?

Actually, it's that my wife knows one of the contestants. (We figure "knows" is just barely the correct term -- I believe she's met him once.) She knows his mother much better, having worked with her for about three years. In the interest of my much-ballyhooed anonymity, I won't name any names, but the savvy among you could probably piece it together, if you wanted to, based on my geographical location and the fact that he's one of the five men still remaining on the show.

Well, I have to say I've been really enjoying the show. I'm a sucker for reality shows that use elimination formats, almost no matter what the subject matter is -- if I start watching, I'll keep watching. Which is why I watch only a few of them -- really only Survivor and Hell's Kitchen. I watched a couple seasons of The Bachelor/Bachelorette and Beauty and the Geek a long time ago, and have sampled other formats (we had the fastest "addicted to/lost interest in" cycle in the history of television with The Amazing Race, which lasted about an episode and a half this season).

Idol, however, could be here to stay -- we'll have to see if our interest endures past the personal stake we have in this year's competition. Truth be told, our initial buzz has lost some of its fizz since the season started, as it's become more and more clear that the entertaining panel of judges are unable to deliver the really tough criticism -- with the exception of Randy Jackson, who has inherited Simon Cowell's mantle as "the tough one," though just barely. Even Steven Tyler is not as entertaining as he once was, partly because he's such a softie and you can't expect anything out of him but varying levels of praise.

Yes, there's a tie-in to movies here, just hold on a second.

As even the casual observer will be aware, American Idol has "theme weeks" -- or, I should say, every week is a theme week, where the contestants sing songs according to some overarching theme. This season they've sung songs from the year they were born, songs from Motown, songs from the catalogue of the great Elton John, and songs celebrating rock n' roll. (I may have missed one in there.) I wondered if they were eventually going to get to the obvious theme that had special importance to me, and this week they did -- songs from the movies.

Except, they didn't really.

Each of the eight remaining contestants sung a song that was technically in or inspired by some sort of movie that someone might have heard of once. Few, if any, were what you would call iconic movie songs. Where was the "Eye of the Tiger"? Where was the "Danger Zone"? (For some reason, I can only think of songs from 80s movies.) If Pia Toscano hadn't gotten eliminated the week before, she surely would have sung Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."

But Pia was eliminated, and the remaining group was content to skate by on bending the rules, either by choosing a movie no one had heard of, or choosing a song no one considers to be directly associated with the movie it was supposed to have appeared in. Check it out:

Contestant: Scotty McCreery
His thing: Country singer with a deep voice
Song choice: Title track from the film Pure Country (1992, Christopher Cain), composed and performed by George Strait, who stars in the film
What he should have sung: Producer Jimmy Iovine had him working out Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" from Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), but he rejected it
My comment: Scotty is a very engaging country singer whose voice belies his 17 years, but he's very comfortable inside the box -- which seems pretty safe since he apparently has a hugely loyal voting bloc throughout America's many rural regions. One of his most interesting performances, to me, was when he was forced to do a Motown song -- he got his voice around a Stevie Wonder song in a really interesting way. But when left to his own devices, he's gone as safe as possible, and that includes ramming his exact shtick down our throat by ignoring Iovine's suggestion (of a song that would have been in his wheelhouse anyway) and selecting a song from a movie with the word Country in the title (because having the word Cowboy in the title was not close enough).
Result: Didn't make a difference. He sailed through once again on last night's results show.

Contestant: Lauren Alaina
Her thing: A combination of Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson
Song choice: The Miley Cyrus song "The Climb" from Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009, Peter Chelsom)
What she should have sung: "Let the River Run" by Carly Simon from Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)
My comment: Am I just an old man? I guess it was a smart move, in some senses, to pander to the young girls and their quick texting fingers by singing a Miley Cyrus song, and I had in fact heard the song before. But even fans of Miley Cyrus probably don't think the Hannah Montana movie is a work of high art, or even something that most people have seen. Why the Carly Simon song? I don't know, it's just one of those songs that strike me as a consummate movie song, and she's the more appropriate of the two women remaining on the show to sing it. Then again, most of the Idol viewers -- and contestants -- hadn't yet been born when the movie came out.
Result: Sailed through. Another strong heartland voting bloc. Like Scotty, she has yet to be in the bottom three.

Contestant: Jacob Lusk
His thing: Big, powerful gospel vocals, often compared to Luther Vandross by Jennifer Lopez
Song choice: "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" -- the Roberta Flack cover that was apparently used in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006, Gabriele Muccino)
What he should have sung: "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" from Cooley High (1975, Michael Schultz)
My comment: "Bridge" is a great song, of course, and who am I to argue with Jimmy Iovine for suggesting it? (Jacob had a really corny first choice -- "The Impossible Dream," which would have been from the 1972 film version of Man of La Mancha -- but Iovine shamed him out of it.) But does anyone really associate this song, even the Roberta Flack version, with The Pursuit of Happyness? I love The Pursuit of Happyness, I just think it's way down the list of possible associations for this song. Yeah, maybe my choice is a bit musty, and more people know it from Boyz II Men covering it for their album (which was a tribute of sorts to the film) Cooleyhighharmony. But Jacob could have sent it soaring.
Result: Good enough to avoid the bottom three.

Contestant: Casey Abrams
His thing: Jazzy vocals, upright bass, a little bit of a growl in his voice
Song choice: "Nature Boy" by Nat King Cole from The Boy With Green Hair (1948, Joseph Losey)
What he should have sung: "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from Once (2007, John Carney)
My comment: "Nature Boy" actually makes the second song Casey has sung that was used in Moulin Rouge! -- he also sang "Your Song" for Elton John week. Maybe he just loves that movie. And he did a beautiful job on the song. But, The Boy With Green Hair? Who's ever even heard of that movie? (I could be revealing my ignorance, so please scold me if that's the case.) And it came out in 1948, which just shows a stretch to fit the criteria of the theme. Zeitgeist it was not, but then again, Casey's made it this far on making his own choices (remember that he actually performed a screaming version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for "year you were born" week). The Once song would have allowed his mixture of softness (which he's needed to emphasize) and angst (which he's needed to downplay despite it being an essential ingredient in his artistry). Then again, it's a duet on the chorus, so maybe it wouldn't work in this situation.
Result: Safe, as he's been every week since the judges famously saved him from elimination.

Contestant: Sefano Langone
His thing: Big voice with traditional credentials of R&B artists from the last two decades
Song choice: "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men from Boomerang (1992, Reginald Hudlin)
What he should have sung: "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins from Against All Odds (1984, Taylor Hackford)
My comment: I was surprised to discover just now that "End of the Road" was actually written for Boomerang -- surprised because the song was #1 for a record-setting 13 straight weeks and far, far outdistanced any association with that forgettable Eddie Murphy vehicle. In that sense it's more just a really popular song than a song from a movie. He did do it well, however. As for "Against All Odds," well, at least the movie it's from had the same name as the song -- even if that song also outdistanced its association with the movie. In any case, Stefano could have sung it well and it would have been a break from his same-sounding R&B songs week after week.
Result: Stefano is used to just scraping by, and this week he was one of the final two of the bottom three. But he survived again.

Contestant: James Durbin
His thing: Would have been one of the best lead singers ever of a 1980s hair band, and that's a compliment in this case
Song choice: "Heavy Metal" by Sammy Hagar from Heavy Metal (1981, Gerald Potterton)
What he should have sung: "Blaze of Glory" by Jon Bon Jovi from Young Guns II (1990, Geoff Murphy)
My comment: James is probably our favorite contestant -- though he is not necessarily the person we know. (Still being cagey here.) He's never really made a misstep and he's never been in the bottom three. Simply put, he rocks. His decision to bring heavy metal to American Idol has worked every time, and he overran Jimmy Iovine's objections to do this particular song. And he was right. Still, he might have done a slightly better service to his long-term aspirations with the wider voting public if he'd gone just a bit safer here, as indeed, this was a song most people don't know from a movie most people don't know (even my wife hadn't heard of it; I remember being excited to see it when I was younger because it contained cartoon nudity). "Blaze of Glory" would have allowed him to use his astounding rock voice on a song we all know and a lot of us love.
Result: James sailed through again.

Contestant: Haley Reinhart
Her thing: Repeatedly compared to the bluesy quality of Janis Joplin, though she notoriously had a problem "finding herself" with the judges early on
Song choice: "Call Me" by Blondie from American Gigolo (1980, Paul Schrader)
What she should have sung: "Take My Breath Away" by Berlin from Top Gun (1986, Tony Scott)
My comment: I actually think she did a good job with "Call Me," which I do actually associate with American Gigolo now that you mention it -- but you'd have to mention it for me to do so. Strangely, the judges sort of ripped her, even though they were hesitant to do so because five straight women had already been voted off the show (and no men). I admit I've got a bit of a soft spot for her -- appearance-wise, she reminds me a bit of my favorite female artist, Tori Amos. I suggested the Berlin song primarily because I couldn't really think of anything for her, and I must admit I'm using wikipedia's "Academy Award for Best Song" page as a crutch here ("Take My Breath Away" won in 1986). Still, this song can be sung pretty bluesy and has more soul than your standard female power ballad.
Result: Like Stefano, Haley is no stranger to the bottom three, but she squeaked through again.

Contestant: Paul McDonald
His thing: A singer-songwriter type who also has a lively dancing performance style, and reminds me of Rod Stewart (perhaps because he sang "Maggie May")
Song choice: "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seger from Risky Business (1983, Paul Brickman)
What he should have sung: Even though I don't really like this song, I'm fine with the choice
My comment: There's a reason why I left Paul until last -- he actually followed the spirit of the theme. No, "Old Time Rock and Roll" was not written for Risky Business, but this is not the best original song category at the Oscars. And the fact is, whenever anybody hears the first few notes of that song, they think of Tom Cruise sliding into the shot in his button-down shirt and underwear.
Result: And what did playing by the rules get him? Voted off. That's right, Paul was the first guy to go after paying an honest tribute to the movies, as this week's theme intended to do.

When you come right down to it, the failure of American Idol to have an interesting movie-themed week came from the top down. With the exception of his recommendation of "Everybody's Talkin'," Jimmy Iovine didn't really steer the contestants in the right direction (whether they chose to accept his advice or not). Iovine wanted Casey to sing Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," which I associate a lot more with that urban legend of the drowning victim/Collins spot-lighting the person who didn't help at the concert, than I do with its usage in a number of different movies, including the aforementioned Risky Business. And what was the bit where Rob Reiner came on to talk to the contestants about the value of music to movies? His appearance was consumed mostly by an ill-advised joke about Chariots of Fire, in which Reiner came up with imaginary humorous lyrics to the signature theme from the score. The contestants laughed because they knew they were supposed to, not because they got the reference in the slightest.

Well, maybe I will have to watch next year, to see if they do a better job with this.

And I can pretty much promise you this is the last post I will write about American Idol ... until then, at least.

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