‘American Idol’ Recap: Finalists Turn In Breakthrough Performances On Movie Night

Jena Irene, Malaya Watson and MK stand out as finalists take on tunes from 'Frozen' to '27 Dresses.'

After several weeks of shaky performances, the “American Idol” finalists came to life on Wednesday.

All it took to wake them up was a trip to the movies, as the top 11 tackled the theme Songs from the Cinema, singing songs either written for or heavily featured in movies. They covered tunes from “Frozen” and “Skyfall” to, um, “27 Dresses,” and here’s how the night played out:

Jena, Malaya, MK Stand Out
The night’s best performances came from the three contestants who’ve tasted the fear of elimination. Jena Irene, Malaya Watson and MK Nobillette have all found themselves near the bottom of the vote totals in the last two weeks, and all three scored in a big way on Movie Night.

Jena flexed her wild vocals on Paramore’s “Decode,” smartly leaning on the “Twilight” fanbase for added support. “Good lord!” Keith Urban exclaimed after the “exhilarating” performance, which earned a standing ovation from both him and Jennifer Lopez. (Harry Connick Jr., for his part, has yet to grant anyone a standing O this season.)

Malaya took on “Dreamgirls” but rather than going with the obvious (and overused) “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” she took on “I Am Changing,” and used it as an anthem for her reinvention in the competition. The judges all praised her huge vocals and blossoming talent, and again, both Urban and Lopez rose to their feet for her.

But the night’s — and the season’s thus far — best performance belonged to MK, who gave a stunning, subtle reading of “To Make You Feel My Love,” which was featured in Connick’s “Hope Floats.” MK, who has found herself in the bottom the last two weeks, sang an elegant, quietly devastating version of the song, filled with emotional heft and absent the kinds of histrionics that usually mark these performances.

The judges gave her positive feedback but weren’t nearly as over the moon as they should have been, and will hopefully catch themselves after they watch the playback on television. It was the year’s first performance that created the “moment” they so often talk about.

Caleb Scores With ‘Skyfall,’ C.J. With ‘Blow’
Caleb Johnson broke out of his rocker-dude rut with a standout performance of Adele’s James Bond theme “Skyfall,” which took a hefty artistic risk and paid off. The more obvious move would have been to sing a song from his repertoire and back pedal to try to place it into a film — that’s what Dexter Roberts did, singing a generic “Sweet Home Alabama” and leaning on the fact that it was one of about 450 classic rock songs used in “Forrest Gump.”

But Johnson instead moved forward in the competition by stretching himself. It was a smart performance.

C.J. Harris also did well with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” which was featured in “Blow.” It was his most confident performance thus far, and bounced him out of the doldrums of the last few weeks. Urban rewarded him with a standing ovation, and Lopez called him a “frontrunner” in the competition.

Meuse And Woolf Struggle
Last week, Jessica Meuse sang Dido’s “White Flag,” saying it’s a song she performs in every one of her shows. This week, she sang Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” introducing it the very same way. And if she keeps it up, by the end of the season we’ll have experienced one of her concerts in its entirety. But for a song she’s so used to singing, it didn’t stand out, and perhaps she should try singing something that’s new to her. It also suffered from a bum arrangement from the band, which Connick made a point to mention.

Sam Woolf, the most timid heartthrob in recent “Idol” memory, was also just OK. He sang the Beatles’ “Come Together” (featured in the Beatles musical “Across the Universe”) like he was singing it in his mirror but was scared of his reflection. “I think it was an average performance, but you’re on your way,” said Connick, being kind.

Majesty Rose, singing the “Frozen” smash “Let It Go,” and Alex Preston, singing “Falling Slowly” from “Once,” were also somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Ben Briley Falls Flat
The night’s most puzzling performance came from Ben Briley, who sang Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which James Marsden and Katherine Heigl drunkenly karaoke to in “27 Dresses.” Except Briley admitted to never even having seen “27 Dresses” — not that it’s something he’d admit to anyway — but so, um, why did he choose this song, again? Was the week’s theme so restrictive that this is the best he could come up with?

Apparently he did it just to show off his bad Elton John impression, because he delivered a mocking cover version that would barely pass during drunken karaoke. The judges torpedoed him, with Connick calling the performance “sort of pointless.” At least Briley, who was spiffed up in a green suit, looked good while he was delivered the bad news. But the news could be even worse come results.

Summer Tour On The Line
There’s an added bonus for the “Idols” this week: Everyone who makes it through earns a spot on the “Idol” summer tour. The one contestant who is kicked off on Thursday’s (March 13) show will have the chance to purchase a ticket when the show comes to their town.

No male contestants have been in the bottom three yet this season, but this could be the week that changes. The “Idol” results show moves to its new 9 p.m. time-slot Thursday, and the show will feature a performance by Connick, who after all those cutting remarks has a chance to show the contestants how it’s done.

What did you think of “Idol’s” performances on Wednesday? Let us know in the comments!