Film songs plus Quentin Tarantino equals good show
Hallelujah! For the first time in, um, ever, ''American Idol'' producers chose a guest judge who was relevant, achingly hip, absolutely cool, and most importantly, honest. What I wouldn't give for every week's guest judge to pour forth with the sort of polite honesty that defined Quentin Tarantino's appearance on last night's installment of ''American Idol.'' And, hey, what could give ''Idol'' more street cred (not that it really needs it) than knowing that Mr. ''Kill Bill'' himself was ''looking forward'' to judging the contestants?
The movie-themed night began, thank goodness, with George Huff, whose favorite movie is (surprise!) ''The Wiz.'' George chose to sing the Phil Collins song ''Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),'' which isn't exactly a barn-burner -- even when it comes from a guy who easily could have ripped up the Motown recording studios back in the day.
Personally? I was a fan of Huff Daddy's assured, forceful performance, mainly because this was the first time that he really let his voice -- and not his spread-the-love gospel cheer -- sell his music. But considering that the judges said it was ''funny'' (Randy) and started asking, ''Why would you pick this song?'' (Paula!), was it really the right choice on a night full of emotive power-ballad domination?
Jennifer Hudson had to build on the incredible goodwill she received after she ripped into ''Circle of Life'' last week, especially considering that her ass was pretty much on the line thanks to an unfriendly Simon. What more can one say about her version of Whitney's ''I Have Nothing'' besides, well, yowsa?!
I'm still holding out hope that J. Hud will learn to connect with her audience. She continues to grow into her deep, sexy voice with each passing week, but when I look into her eyes as she sings, I feel less like I'm being touched on my soul and more like I'm being threatened to sit down and shut up. The forcefulness in her eyes and on her face works… but only to a point. Will we get a chance to see a soft and cuddly Jennifer anytime soon? Here's my hope: If ''Idol'' decides to devote an hour to songs of the disco era, she'll break out the Afro and body dew, emerge onstage hugging her own bosom, and throw down an old-school Diana Ross jam like ''Upside Down'' or ''Love Hangover.'' C'mon, girl, I know you've got it in you!
JPL returned to the rabblerousing roots that got him into this mess in the first place with an inspired (but still downright awful) rendition of Elvis' ''Jailhouse Rock.'' This is the second time that our erstwhile pen salesman has resorted to the Elvis trick to save his pasty butt, and I've no doubt that it'll prove it's worked when tonight's results show airs. Part of this may be because he gave one of the night's only performances that didn't feel like it belonged on a high-end cruise ship nearing its final days.
But JPL cannot dance or keep pace with the tempo of, well, any of the songs that he sings. (Neither can Mariah or Whitney, but they have their voices as buffers.) In the end , this is the sort of dance routine that should be confined to the garage on a lonely afternoon or to the last minutes of a wedding reception in Oklahoma City. Is this foolishness a style that can take itself all the way to the end of ''Idol''? And come to think of it, if we're a country that can quickly turn around an album for a loser like William Hung, doesn't JPL actually stand a pretty good chance of taking his shtick all the way to the end?
Diana DeGarmo and Jasmine Trias both reached the bottom three last week, though it was easy to see that they received free passes due to the collective-itis that turned their voices into shadows of their former selves. They didn't really do much to improve upon them last night, either. Diana sang a rather bombastic, all-over-the-map version of Celine's ''My Heart Will Go On.'' I don't want to be too harsh, especially since I like Diana. But choosing a modern-day classic that's achieved full-on icon status was not the wisest choice this little one has made thus far in the competition.
As for Jasmine? In a field full of strong female performers, I fear that the flower-wearing Hawaii native is the obvious weakest link. Her rendition of ''When I Fall in Love'' sounded too much like a Miss America pageant number… and that hokey musical arrangement didn't help, either.
Fantasia Barrino (''Bobo'') has done really well for herself in this competition by choosing older classics and giving them her distinctive, Macy Gray-like spin. But it's more than just song choice that's pulled my Bobo through the early fire: It's the fact that she uses that stage so damn well! Last night, the only thing that Bobo had to do was sit down, announce her presence, and tear into ''Summertime'' with all the offbeat class and charm that we all know she's had in her since the beginning.
And here's a popular topic on the EW message boards that I've been meaning to address re: Fantasia. When Quentin exuberantly announced, ''You're the bomb… and you know that!'' to an obviously awestruck Bobo, I started thinking about all of the posts that negatively assert that Fantasia's ''bad attitude'' and ''lack of manners'' are hindering her popularity with viewers. People, this is a girl who moved churchgoers to near-conniptions when she sang back home; if she knows that she's worthy of wearing the ''Idol'' crown, then by all means let the lady act like it! Nobody gets ahead waiting for somebody else to tell them that they can. Bobo knows this, and because you can practically feel the heat from the fire in her belly burning through the screen, she's going to be a major, major factor in the final weeks of the season.
I've sort of taken to John Stevens' performances, if for no other reason than that watching him get trashed by the judges is starting to become a weekly highlight in my household. John sorta-kinda redeemed himself with his performance of ''Casablanca'''s ''As Time Goes By,'' but I can't forgive two things. First of all, his favorite movie is ''Aladdin''. Secondly -- and Simon was right on the money when he pointed this out -- John has absolutely no personality when he's onstage, and that's something that most of his competitors pretty much own. Now, granted, Ruben Studdard had little-to-no personality and he managed to win the entire competition last year, but he also had an infectiously lovable teddy bear quality that kept him in America's good graces. What does John Stevens have to offer besides a repetitive take on old-school love songs and a horrible white blazer?
Finishing the show with La Toya London's version of ''West Side Story'''s ''Somewhere'' was nothing short of genius, because La Toya -- with the exception of perhaps George -- has been the most consistent singer on the show. I still prefer others in the end over La Toya, but it's pretty much a given that she'll be duking it out in the final round of this season. And with a performance like last night's (clean, crisp, powerful to a fault), she stands a good chance of winning the whole competition.
Or will Bobo continue to surprise? Perhaps George will pull a quiet (but apparently very popular) victory. Can J. Hud continue her upswing? Or is JPL going to keep confounding audiences -- and poor Simon -- and stay right in the midst of the competition's fiercest battles?