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'American Idol' recap: The top 8 hit the movies

April 14, 2011 | 10:22 am

MB1_4870 Before the "American Idol" top eight tackled songs from movies on Wednesday night, the camera swept over an audience member holding a sign aloft that echoed the thoughts of many: It read "I miss Pia."

After last week's Pia-mania, "Idol" did its best to brush off the Toscano dust and move on with the eight contestants America had spared. Ryan Seacrest tried to change the conversation, noting that Jennifer Lopez had just been named the world's most beautiful woman by People magazine.

With the bravado of recent weeks swallowed up in the post-Pia pall, the evening brought a mixed bag of performances from singers who appeared chastened by the fickleness of America's tastes. Several of them seemed to have concluded that, if it had proved so difficult to predict what America wanted from them, they may as well be true to themselves.

Paul McDonald, "Old Time Rock and Roll": Paul decides to make like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" and bust out his moves for Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." Thank goodness he doesn't come sliding in in his tighty whiteys, as mentors Jimmy Iovine and suggested. He does, however, wear another one of his fancy floral suits -– a black one this time –- which Steven Tyler compliments, along with Paul's "wild crazy abandon." The other judges also heap on the praise: Jennifer says Paul was "like a diamond in the rough" that becomes a little more polished every week. And Randy Jackson gushes that he loved it. "America, you just witnessed the first number at the Paul McDonald concert," he says, adding that Paul is "just not a typical singer" and "definitely an artist … Good on you, good on you!" I dunno. I thought it was -- to borrow a favorite Randy phrase from seasons past -- "just OK."

Lauren Alaina, "The Climb": Lauren picks Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" and is promptly shocked to hear Jimmy assess that she is "a much, much, much stronger singer" than Cyrus. Jimmy also invites Lauren to steal Pia's fans now that she's gone. "You've got to get her votes," he lectures. But suggests inviting them instead: "Make 'em little cupcakes." Lauren does cool, controlled things with her voice on "The Climb," which makes me sad for Pia and worried for this year's two remaining female "Idol" contestants. Will I have to be sad when Lauren is voted off too? I wonder.

Jennifer says, "Hey, girl. I love the tear that you have in your voice," comparing it to a cry and noting that it "really transmits." She wants Lauren to go further, she says, adding that she doesn't need to steal Pia's votes: "You're getting plenty of your own." Randy says Lauren made the song "sound like it was written for you" and calls it "an amazing job" twice. Steven reiterates his longstanding love for Lauren and concludes, "Again, you move me beyond tears." Ryan gets in a strange dig at Lauren's mother: "Wow, look at the volume in mom's hair!"

Stefano Langone, "End of the Road": Before stepping out to perform, Stefano tells Ryan that to be a success as a singer, "You have to be a great performer, and that's really my goal going forward." Jimmy gives him a pep talk, telling Stefano he's "got the chops" to win the whole thing. Bolstered, Stefano says he's ready to start fresh and comes out there and … manages to keep his eyes open! (But he still looks perpetually on the verge of a sneeze.) He then flashes a cute smile at the end that will undoubtedly prompt countless female adolescents to vote, vote, vote. 

Randy says Stefano "just slayed" the song, calling it his "best vocal on this stage to date." He adds, "What I saw is that you now believe ... Stefano wants to win it!"  Steven compliments Stefano for milking it and contends, "This is so not the end of the road for you. It's just the beginning." Jennifer credits him for "singing to win." Ryan asks Stefano if he sees himself up there in the finale, and Stefano utters a few words about "one step at a time" and being there for the audience, before Ryan schools him in positive visualization, prompting, "We're here to win it!" Going right for Stefano's likely fan base, Ryan says, "Stefano, girls." Sadly, I now honestly also think Stefano has a shot at winning it. Sigh.

Scotty McCreery, "I Cross My Heart": After getting flak from Jimmy and for calling them "dude" and declining to sing what they want him to sing, Scotty tackles a George Strait song, saying he hopes he "can do the King of Country some justice." He doesn't, turning in a boring performance that included a very not-pretty held note and slurring the lyrics at one point, prompting me to wonder if maybe he forgot the words (as he did in Hollywood Week). Did the judges express disappointment in his performance? Mystifyingly, they did not.

"Scotty, I just love your voice," Steven enthuses, contending that he had again "picked the just right song … You're good." Jennifer raises hopes by starting, "You know, everybody wants us to be tough with you guys," and then dashes them: "But the truth is, you're all so damn good! … All I want to say is wow." She does allow that "it wasn't my favorite song choice for you." But that mild critique is swallowed up by an explosion of (unearned) compliments from Randy, who says he loved it when Scotty stuck to his country roots. "If it ain't broke, don't even think about fixing it," he says (very unlike the advice they all gave Pia to push herself out of her comfort zone). Randy isn't done piling on the love. "A star is born on this stage," he says, noting Scotty has "grown so much" and proclaiming himself to be a "huge, ginormous fan … hot, hot, hot." Double sigh.

Casey Abrams, "Nature Boy": Casey also chooses to ignore Jimmy Iovine's song-choice advice, passing over Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" to take on a Nat King Cole song that he feels "defines me as an artist." Jimmy doesn't think it sounds like a winner, but Casey stands firm, saying, "I don't want to lose myself in this process." (Especially after he's finally found his face: Casey's beard has now been trimmed close enough to be considered merely a scruff.) Jimmy throws down the gauntlet, saying Casey took a risk by not taking his song-choice advice, "so he better be right." The notes I took during Casey's performance read as follows: "Casey is cooked. But I really like it. He's so good. That was great."

The judges, who give Casey a standing ovation, seem to follow the same trajectory. "Casey, I gotta say, at the beginning, I was nervous," Jennifer says, because she is thinking, "Oh, my God, he's not going to win any popularity contest with this song." But then she goes on to compare him to the mega-selling, Grammy-winning Norah Jones and asserting that there is a place for unconventional, jazzy talent like Casey's. Randy calls him a "true artist"
and a "genius" and says the show has never had anyone like him "ever," adding that Casey was able to educate as he performed. Steven credits Casey for doing what was in his heart. Casey appears to be moved by the outpouring of emotion (a little choked up under ... was that an ascot?), though if the viewers send him home (again), it could be because they don't like being told they need to be educated (as Randy said and Casey echoed) while they are being entertained.

Haley Reinhart, "Call Me": Before Haley goes out there to make a play for votes with Debbie Harry's "Call Me," she notes that it is "really crazy to think there's only two of us girls left" among the contestants this season. But she doesn't do very much to raise hopes that the vote this week won't leave us with one fewer. Randy calls the performance "karaoke" and says the song didn't showcase Haley's voice. Steven says he agrees and compliments Haley on her dress. And Jennifer says she was afraid to say anything bad about one of the show's two remaining female contestants. "Vote for the girls," she told viewers. But will they?

Jacob Lusk, "Bridge Over Troubled Water": Landing in the bottom three last week and seeing Pia go home appears to have scared Jacob straight. And if that didn't do it, Jimmy does, chastising him for preaching "to 24 million people" on the show last week before he's even put out a record. "You don't preach to people," he warns. "They don't want to be preached to." Then he rips into Jacob's first song choice as "corny" and has him sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Wisely, in this case, Jacob takes Jimmy's advice, giving a restrained (for him) performance that (thankfully) lacks a gospel choir. Steven says Jacob's singing "sizzles," adding, "It's astounding to me how angelic you sing -- your crescendos and innuendoes and ups and downs." Jennifer says Jacob "pulled" chills out of her against her will. Randy says that, when Jacob sang, he "believed" him and "listened to every word," calling it "perfect, perfect, perfect harmony … very controlled." I don't know. I'm not sure I'm ready to forgive Jacob for being so arrogant last week. You?

James Durbin, "Heavy Metal": James falls squarely in Casey and Scotty's "I'll do what I want, and not what Jimmy tells me to" camp, amping things up with Sammy Hagar's "Heavy Metal." Jimmy warns him it's not a "careful" choice. James doesn't care. He wants America to "give metal a chance," joking that he's "making armbands and flyers: 'Give metal a chance, please.'" Unexpectedly, I found myself liking it, admiring James' audacity and conviction. Jennifer said it "felt really, really real. I really loved that." Randy says he hopes America will "bring metal back," chanting, "Durbin rocks! Durbin rocks! Durbin rocks!" Steven compliments Durbin not only on his "outstanding" performance, but also on giving Jimmy "lip." But the weirdest thing is Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde, with whom James had performed, wandering around onstage after the song. Ryan says he feels he should give Zakk his own voting line. Me, I thought someone should give him a gentle nudge off the stage.

So, hmmm, the bottom three: I'm picking Paul, Haley and Stefano, just for old times' sake, but really, it's anyone's guess. Will voters punish Casey for wishing to "educate" them? Scotty for being boring? Jacob for past preachiness? James for pushing metal on them? Lauren for being a girl? What do you think? Who do you think should go home? And who do you think will?

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Lauren Alaina performs in front of the judges. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

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