The Top 11 on "American Idol" tackled songs from the cinema on Wednesday night, and in keeping with the theme, many of the singers seemed to come into artistic focus for the first time.
As each stepped forward to sing a song either written for or "heavily featured in" (or in some cases, loosely connected to) a film, they faced heightened stakes. They were singing not only to remain in the competition but also to earn a spot on the summer "Idol" tour. But more than anything, they probably did their best in hopes of not displeasing Harry Connick Jr.
They succeeded. "The competition, as far as I'm concerned, started tonight," the tough-love judge said halfway through the performances.
PHOTOS: 'American Idol' judges through the years
Connick also took the opportunity, early in the show, to get in a dig at the dawg, Randy Jackson, whose on-screen presence was significantly diminished this time around.
After Jennifer Lopez declared that the judges were looking for the contestants to show some fight and shoot for No. 1, Connick said he'd thought up an appropriate catch phrase: "You have to be in it to win it," he said.
"I think I've heard that before," Lopez said.
In fact, on Wednesday, we heard some contestants sing with a passion and power we had not heard before. Others still in it have yet to prove they can win it.
Sam Woolf kicked things off with the Beatles' "Come Together," which was featured in the film "Across the Universe." Woolf sat on a box, then walked awkwardly downstage and sang to a few members of the audience. The vocals were OK, but the performance never quite came together. Keith Urban nevertheless told Woolf he was on a good "trajectory." Lopez said she craved more personality, calling Woolf a "baby rock star," whereas "we need big rock star." Connick, clearly trying to be kind while still being honest, correctly dubbed the performance "average." Woolf was "on the way" to being better though, he said, calling it a "pretty good job."
FACES TO WATCH 2014: Pop & Jazz
Jessica Meuse sang Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence," from "The Graduate," which you may have expected her to nail, since she said she performs it routinely, but the song's timing was off. Lopez said Meuse "never got her groove on," and warned that, even though she thinks Meuse can win, she has to nail it "every single time." Connick blamed the band for the timing issues and said it was actually admirable that Meuse had maintained focus in the midst of the musicians' flub. Urban tactfully avoided the bigger questions and told Meuse she looked great and, having graduated to a bigger venue, should work on exploring the dynamics of her mike.
C.J. Harris turned in his best performance to date, grabbing his brand-new guitar and singing a soulful, stirring version of the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See," featured in the movie "Blow." Urban gave him a standing ovation, later calling the performance "killer." Connick was uncharacteristically effusive, telling Harris he had "picked and sang" his way "back to the forefront of the competition" with a "very, very strong" performance. Lopez said she was "so proud" and that she believed Harris had the ability to change the world with his music.
Alabama boy Dexter Roberts showed off a new hairdo and familiar vocal style with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," which has been heard in movies including "Forrest Gump." The judges liked Roberts' look, but reiterated their advice to make songs his own. "Put your Dexterism in there," Urban advised. Lopez credited Roberts with starting to believe he could win. And Connick told him he was playing it "smart" by singing solid renditions of songs "everybody knows," a strategy that could make him "tough to beat."
Ben Briley had one of the night's biggest stumbles, brushing back his hair, trimming his beard, donning a velvety jacket and turning in a loungy rendition of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" (featured in the movie "27 Dresses"), which he began by plinking along on the piano. The judges said they found Briley's changed persona confusing. Lopez told Briley his vocal was good but the song may not have suited him. Connick called the performance "lackadaisical" and affected and said he was still looking forward to hearing "the real Ben." Urban said it didn't feel "authentic."
Majesty Rose also made a strange song choice, though certainly one in keeping with the week's theme as well her previous life as a preschool teacher. She sang "Let It Go" from "Frozen," fresh from its Oscar win, saying it could have been written for her. Frankly, she was no Idina Menzel -- nor an Adele Dazeem, for that matter -- turning in a shouty rendition that sounded suitable for a high school talent show. The judges, however, were impressed -- even Connick, who told Rose that, though he found her to be a "mystery" in terms of the vast randomness of her song selections, the "good part is tonight was a strong performance." Lopez told Rose she thought she could be anything.
Caleb Johnson's equally unexpected song choice -- Adele's "Skyfall," from the movie of the same name -- was a much more successful gambit, allowing him to shed much of his over-the-top rocker shtick and showcase his impressive vocal power, control and range. Urban stood and clapped and, referencing Connick, called Johnson's "great, restrained performance" unpredictable but "fully dependable." "That was fantastic," Connick told Johnson. "You're going to be very hard to beat."
MK Nobilette sang "Make You Feel My Love," a song that was featured in one of Connick's own films, "Hope Floats," sweetly and sincerely, walking forward and standing mere feet away from the judges. Lopez said she loved it and felt Nobilette had managed to connect, comparing her to KD Lang in the way she could affect an audience by doing "so little." Connick said it was "subtle" and Nobilette had "star quality," but suggested she roll back her runs. Urban told Nobilette he'd seen "little glimpses of who you can be once you get comfortable with this" and that she was "really, really good."
Alex Preston hitched up his cropped slacks, donned a white jacket and tackled the song "Falling Slowly" from the movie "Once." As usual, his performance was musically intense and riveting. Connick said he was "really proud" of Preston, adding, "Sure, I love fireworks as much as the next guy, but it's still nice to see something that's simply stated and elegantly done." Urban said Preston's performances always hold his attention with their "raw fragility" and authenticity. Lopez was moved to brevity: "Perfect song for you. You sang it perfectly. It was beautiful," she said.
The strong performances continued with Jena Irene, whose take on Paramore's "Decode," from the movie "Twilight," showed off her potent vocals and impressive piano playing. Urban and Lopez gave the 17-year-old powerhouse a standing ovation. Urban, though he mispronounced her name, complimented her on her "ferocity," comparing the "exhilarating" sensation of watching her perform to "hurtling along the edge of a cliff" in a car. Connick called the performance "very, very strong," and Lopez called it "the best performance of the night" and wondered what the talented singer had been doing in last week's bottom three. She made a plea: "America, please get on board with this. This girl is the real thing."
Malaya Watson capped off the show by belting out "I Am Changing," from the movie "Dreamgirls." Again, Urban and Lopez stood and clapped. "Good girl, Malaya," Lopez said approvingly, calling it the "perfect song" for her and the "perfect way to end the show." Connick said Watson was this season's "big belter" and predicted her sound would get "thicker and bigger" as she grew. Urban told her she had shown a "really good understanding of the songs that play to your strengths" and was poised to "blossom."
Putting aside the live-voting spoilers on the show this season (please stop doing that, "American Idol"), I'm going to suggest that, among generally solid performances, Briley, Rose and teen heartthrob Woolf were this week's weakest links. Of course, who knows which singer voters will actually send home? Nobilette could also be in trouble, based on past performances. Who do you think will head home this week?