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'American Idol' recap: The final four duke it out

"American Idol"
I'm still a little damp-eyed from Jessica Sanchez's final performance on "American Idol" Wednesday night, on which the final four contestants each sang a song either from or about California (yes, somewhat random) as well as a song they wish they'd written themselves, which Ryan Seacrest also classified as songs that inspired them.

Sanchez's take on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls," into which she channeled all the emotion stirred up by her near "Idol" ouster a few weeks back, may have inspired us all — or at least anyone who has at any point ever felt underappreciated or overlooked. It was not just beautifully sung and deeply felt; it was moving, galvanizing, electrifying. Breathtaking.

Jimmy Iovine had been so deeply affected by Sanchez's song during rehearsal, he said he'd probably never forget the moment. He said if she sang it the same way during the show, "it could be game-over."

It could be game-over.

It really would be game-over if it weren't for the fact that Sanchez has some stiff competition — at least for the judges' affections — in Phillip Phillips and Joshua Ledet.

In fact, the judges responded so enthusiastically to Ledet's final performance — the standing O was just the beginning — they almost seemed to have nothing left to give to Sanchez after her rousing final number. Sure, they again rose to their feet to applaud her performance, but in their critiques, they trotted out the trite and true. "Another winning performance," "just over the top," said Steven Tyler. Jennifer Lopez said Sanchez had the sort of vocal talent you don't find every day. And Randy Jackson called the 16-year-old a phenomenon and said she was "in it to really win it," before throwing focus to Julian Lennon, who for some mysterious reason was in the audience.

That all sounds great until you consider what the judges had told Ledet after he sang James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" mere moments before. Ledet really dug into it, but for me, his version paled in comparison to Juliet Simm's inspiring take on it on "The Voice" last week. A woman brings a particular meaning to that song I missed in Ledet's hands. Plus, I didn't love his growl. (Should we blame his new Seacrest-dubbed "bromance" with Phillips, a veteran growler, for that?)

But the judges, well, they sounded like the characters in that kids book "Guess How Much I Love You," competing to be Ledet's biggest admirer. "Neither man nor woman has ever sang that good or with that much compassion on this show, ever," Tyler told Ledet, though I continue to wonder if his "Idol" knowledge goes back further than last season. "I can go home right now. I never heard anything like that in my life."

Jackson took it further. "I think it was the best performance in the history of any singing show!" And Lopez? "I saw the Lord."

The poor judges had peaked too soon and run out of superlatives. They had little left to offer Sanchez, although as she stood before them, trembling and weeping, they scraped together what they could.

They'd also used up a few gushy phrases on Phillips, whose cover of Damien Rice's "Volcano" really deserved to be gushed over: intensely contained and impressively melodic, showing off a range it was not previously clear Phillips had. Tyler said it was the kind of song he could see listening to in headphones "over and over and over." Lopez called it "one of the most beautiful, poignant moments a contestant has ever had." And Jackson rightly told Phillips it was "one of your best performances of the whole season."

Those three songs, by three very different contestants, were probably the evening's highlights, though you could also toss Phillips and Ledet's cover of Maroon 5's "This Love" and Seacrest faking us out into thinking, for a split-second, that he was about to propose to his girlfriend, Julianne Hough. (That rascal. At least she seemed to be in on the joke.)

Other strong performances included Sanchez singing Etta James's "Steal Away" (the tune was a little too old for her, but she proved she could really sing the blues), Ledet's take on Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" (very different from Chris Mann's more operatic, less emotive take on "The Voice" the other night, and with some too-literal staging), and Hollie Cavanagh's powerful performance of Journey's "Faithfully." Parts of Phillips' version of CCR's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" weren't bad, either, though he seemed to be straining on the top notes.

But Cavanagh had a song-choice stumble with Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," a great song, but one with which she couldn't manage to make us love her. And given that the producers didn't do Cavanagh or Sanchez any favors with their duet on "Eternal Flame" by the Bangles, a swingin' production that was beyond peculiar, I think this could be the week Cavanagh finally heads home — and not in the camera-ready way the three finalists will enjoy.

What did you think of the performances? And who's your favorite for the win?

"American Idol" vs. "The Voice"

Each week our experts and readers rank the best of the best between the two blockbuster singing competitions. Last week, readers put "American Idol's" Jessica Sanchez just slightly ahead of "The Voice's" Juliet Simms on top. Who will be the favorite this week? Vote below and check out last week's performances and see what our judges had to say at latimes.com/idol-voice.

RELATED:

Full coverage: 'American Idol'

'American Idol' recap: Skylar Laine booted off in fifth place

'American Idol' vs. 'Voice': Juliet Simms better than Jessica Sanchez?

— Amy Reiter

Photo: (From left) Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez, Josh Ledet and Hollie Cavanagh on "American Idol" Wednesday. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox.

 
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