Strong faith; mild song

This part perplexes me: Given an "inspiration music" theme, "American Idol" contestants choose songs that are only borderline inspiring, at best. Most ignore the hugely inspirational world of gospel and religion.

On Tuesday, even Michael Lynche -- who could have done wonders with any gospel powerhouse -- went mild. Casey James went ultra-bland with "Don't Stop" and almost lost.

And Tim Urban? The surprise is that this guy has deep religious roots, yet chose the mild "Better Days." It drew shrugs and he was eliminated. Afterward -- when it was too late -- he talked about his love of religion and life. Here's the story I sent to papers:


A year ago, Tim Urban would have just
been part of the “American Idol” crowd.

That was the year three guys in the top
10 – Michael Sarver, Danny Gokey and winner Kris Allen – had been
church music leaders. This time, however, Urban's religious roots
made him stand out.

“I grew up in a Christian home and
that … has shaped my music,” he told reporters today, the day
after being ousted, finishing seventh.

That influence runs deep. Urban was
home-schooled … says he has never touched alcohol … sang on the
Christian-music circuit in Dallas … and spent 10 days as a
relief-worker in South Africa and Swaziland. “That was a really
amazing and gut-wrenching experience,” he said. “That's why I was
excited about 'Idol Gives Back.'”

He said he got so involved Wednesday –
listening to inspirational songs and watching films about relief work
– that he didn't really worry about being ousted. “It was such an
awesome show, you almost … lost sight of the fact that it was a
results show.”

Then he learned he had the lowest
number of viewer votes. He smiled – just as he had done when judges
criticized him fiercely. That's not a nervous smile, he said, it's a
happy one. “I have a really strong grounding and I know that my
family supports me.”

It's a big family in Duncanville, which
is alongside Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth. Urban is the
sixth of 10 kids, with the lower-key approach attributed to middle

Religion has dominated. The swimsuit
photos that surfaced on the Internet (revealing a torso worthy of
soap operas), were taken at a competition held by a group called
Actors, Models & Talent for Christ.

This combination – a large,
photogenic family with big smiles and great hair – has brought
suggestions of a new Osmond Family. That would be fine with Urban,
who says his siblings have lots of musical talent. “I don't know if
that's what they want to do for the rest of their lives.”

But it's definitely what he wants.
Criticism and all, he said, he loved his “Idol” run. “It's been
a really cool time.”




Savoring the classic films

I really do like modern, current, right-now movies, you know. Even the standard comedies tickle me. "Date Night" is great fun, "Bounty Hunter" is pretty good, "Valentine's Day" is almost adequate.

But there is something to be said for catching the very best of anything. It's a pleasure to go the the Chicago Art Institute and see the best, to sit in a concert hall and hear the best. And that's why Turner Classic Movies is so important.

Other channels have abandoned the classics, but TCM sticks with them. Today, it even starts a four-day festival in Hollywood, showing them on the big screen, where they belong.

I couldn't make it there; you probably couldn't either. At the same time, however, TCM has cable showings of many of the great films. Here's the story that I sent to papers:


In a throw-away culture, old movies –
even the classics – are often ignored.

“I can't imagine what it would be
like to not have old books,” said Robert Osborne, host of the
Turner Classic Movies cable channel. “So why would we not have old

This weekend, as usual, his channel
will pump out the classics – “2001,” “The Graduate,”
“Singin' in the Rain,” “Sunset Boulevard” and more. But it
will also take an extra step: It hosts a massive festival in
Hollywood, filled with old movies and old actors.

Eli Wallach, 94, is expected to be
there; so is Ernest Borgnine, 93. “He is so upbeat,” Osborne said
of Borgnine. “He loves being an actor; he's such a jolly fellow and
he loves everyone.”

He's a newcomer compared to Luise
Rainer, who is 100. If all goes as planned, she'll introduce “The
Good Earth” – in which she won her second Oscar, in 1938. “She
will outlive us all,” Osborne said.

So will the movies, if restoration
people keep up their work. The festival opens Thursday with a
restored “A Star is Born” (1954). It shows “Metropolis”
(1927), with some lost footage added. It has at least five other
restored films, including “The Big Trail” (1930), an Osborne
favorite. “It was a big, big 70-millimeter film,” he said, with
John Wayne in his first credited role.

There will also be some less-obscure
films, from “Casablanca” to “The Graduate,” from “North By
Northwest” to “Saturday Night Fever.” Tony Curtis will be there
with “Some Like It Hot” (1959), Mel Brooks with the original “The
Producers” (1968); Martin Landau will discuss “Cleopatra”
(1963) and Douglas Trumbull will discuss the special effects for
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Lately, trends have been in the
opposite direction. Cable channels duck the classics; American Movie
Classics became simply AMC, Arts & Entertainment became A&E.
Video stores focus on the new.

“Studio libraries have lost their
value,” Marc Graser wrote in Variety, the trade paper. The value of
old MGM films has dropped by about one-third, he wrote, quoting an
analyst as saying “there's not the demand from the public that
there used to be.”

For Osborne, 77, the passion has always
been there. He grew up in Colfax, Wash., a little town that now has
2,9000 people. “There was no one there like me, who was crazy about

After majoring in journalism, he tried
Hollywood. He got a few small acting roles and worked for stars.
“Lucille Ball told me, 'We have enough actors here; we don't have
anyone writing about it.”

So he became a film historian. He wrote
the official Academy Award book and has been at TCM – as host and
interviewer – since it started in 1994.

Now TCM spreads out this weekend. On
cable, it keeps showing the classics; in Hollywood, it will show them
on big screens at Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the Egyptian Theatre;
other events will be at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel – where the
first Oscar ceremony was held in 1929.

Nine years later, Osborne wrote in “80
Years of the Oscar” (Abbeville Press, 2008), the ceremony was at
the Biltmore. “Luise Rainer was home in house slippers when the
Academy committee noted her absence and phoned to tell her she had
won for the second year in a row. She hastily changed into an evening
gown and hurried to the Biltmore.”

If all goes well, she'll be back in
Hollywood this weekend (72 years later), to celebrate movie classics.

In person:

– TCM Classic Film Festival, Thursday
through Sunday, old Hollywood. All-festival passes are $499;
individual films, mostly $20, are sold only at the box office.
Details at

– At home: There's a film-festival
mood to this weekend's schedule. Friday has “2001: A Space Odyssey”
(1968), 8 p.m., and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
11 p.m. … Saturday has “The Graduate” (1967), 8 p.m. … Sunday
has “Lilies in the Field” (1963), 3 p.m.; “Best Years of Our
Lives” (1945), 5 p.m., “Singin' in the Rain: (1952), 8 p.m. and
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950), 10 p.m.



Talking back to "Idol Gives Back"

Here are a few of my "Idol Gives Back" comments; please add yours:

1) This has been inspirational-song week on "American Idol." I know that the Black Eyed Peas inspired me to rock your body.

2) More specifically, it inspired me to rock Fergie's body.

3) Much of the music tonight was truly magnificent. Carrie Underwood ... Alicia Keys ... Elton John ... Joss Stone (backed by Jeff Beck) ... Mary J. Blige (backed by, well, everyone) -- these people sing sensationally. They packed power and emotion.

4) But I'm not knocking true fun, either. The Peas got the show off to a fun start. If anything, "Idol Gives Back" needed more of that. If it had more entertainment, it probably could do a better job of holding its audience and gathering donations.

5) The filmed bits were well-made, emotional and involving. It's just that the show would have been better with fewer of them.

6) And yes, any song has to be good. That opening number -- 12 "Idol" contestants in white, singing a bland, white song -- did nothing.

7) The show did try some humor, which is tricky. It works if the comedian really knows "Idol"; Jimmy Kimmel, for instance, has been great at that. Wanda Sykes had some good lines; George Lopez didn't. The first Russell Brand/Jonah Hill bit was OK; the second was one too many.

8) OK, I almost pegged the bottom three (see previous blog). I'd predicted Casey James, Tim Urban and Michael Lynche; it turned out to be Casey, Tim and Aaron Kelly.

9) Casey survived, barely, proving me wrong. Tim was ousted; still displaying the best smile "Idol" has ever had. This week, his song was only so-so. The smile was as good as ever.

10) Occasionally, "Idol" runs four or five minutes long. This time, it ran 25 minutes long. And it still didn't have time for the pre-taped Justin Bieber song. Or for Tim's farewell song. It did, however, have time for Tim's smile, which is the best part.








Hey, how about inspiring?

I really do think "inspirational song" week should include songs that are ... you know, inspiring. I don't know why so many "American Idol" contestants disagree.

Tonight's show started at the low point -- Casey James' "Can' Stop" was simple, sing-song and dispassionate -- and ended with a high point: Crystal Bowersox was even more sensational that usual, with her stirring "People Get Ready."

Really, this shouldn't be that hard. The world is filled with inspirational songs from gospel ... and the civil rights movement ... and the peace movement ... and Broadway and more. The songs can be as huge as "Walk On" or as simple as David Archuleta stirring crowds with "Imagine."

Still, people keep ducking them. One year, three of the top four finalists had gospel roots, yet religion was avoided like a naughty concept. Here are a few of my comments; please add yours:

1) Even if tonight was disappointing, Wednesday's "Idol Gives Back" should be sensational. Please check my previous blog.

2) Yes, Lee Dewyze did a good job on "The Boxer." Still, on inspiration night he devoted about half his time to singing "la la la la." Maybe it's just me, but that phrase has never particularly been inspiring.

3) Two of the peoplle (Aaron Kelly and Siobhan Magnus) sang songs that had "believe" in the title. Still, there didn't seem to be much specifically that they believed, except for the rather iffy notion that they could fly.

4) I did think that Siobhan was wonderful, though. Her amazing high note -- propelled in primal screams in the early weeks -- was tamed into beautiful subtlety. Alicia Keys was right when she said, "That's your money spot." No matter what the judges say, she should keep going to it.

5) Kara DioGuardia, incidentally, is now banned from the statement: "I still don't know who you are as an artist." Not everyone has to fit some convenient category. I'm quite sure the author of "Imagine" also sang "Roll Over Beethoven," "Norwegian Wood" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

6) By comparison, it's always good to have Ellen Degeneres there -- partly for her humor and partly because she's the only person capable of sitting next to Randy Jackson without repeating him.

7) I really don't know what Michael Lynche was thinking. With all those powerhouse tunes he's capable of, he points out that "Hero" is "kind of out of my comfort zone" and then proves it.

8) Crystal, by comparison, was right on the money. Strong song, strong sentiment, perfect performance. It was ... well, inspiring.

9) My prediction for the bottom three? I'll say Casey, Michael and Tim Urban. For Casey and Michael, it's that hills-and-valleys rule: If you're often great and this time you're merely OK, people forget to vote for you.

10) And heading home? Alas, Casey. He was great previously with "Jealous Man," but tonight delivered what would be an OK, middle-of-the-evening, barroom song. He's near the top in talent, but rarely harnesses it.




"Idol Gives Back": Big night, big music

The first two rounds of "Idol Gives Back" offered television at its best -- powerful music, emotional films and more.

Now, after skipping a year, it returns Wednesday. Here's the preview story I sent to papers. I don't include all of my stories in this blog spot, but I try to include all "Idol" ones:


Amid the blandness of TV and (perhaps)
life, there's an instant antidote.

That's “Idol Gives Back,” on
Wednesday. It delivers emotions with small films and big music.

Music? Ask David Cook about the
previous one, when he was an “American Idol” contestant.

“We all snuck up to the balcony and
(saw) Annie Lennox's performance,” he said. “It was just her on
the piano; in the background, they were showing images of childen,
and it just tore me up.”

Films? Ask Cecile Frot-Coutaz, an
“Idol” producer, about one that year; it had Miley and Billy Ray
Cyrus meeting a family in Appalachia.

“I remember the mother saying …
that if the gas prices went any higher, she wouldn't be able to
afford to take her kids to school,” she said. “I remember that
really struck me.”

Now Lennox will be back. So will
Carrie Underwood, Alicia Keys, Elton John, Mary J. Blige, Joss Stone
(paired with Jeff Beck) and more.

“People really want to take part ….
Nobody turns us down,” Frot-Coutaz said. A few people couldn't do
it because of scheduling problems; one or two (including 16-year-old
Justin Bieber) taped in advance. Most, however, will be live in Los
Angeles or (with Queen Latifah) in Pasadena.

That will be part of a crowded night
that includes the elimination of one of the seven contestants.

The first “Idol Gives Back” feigned
an elimination, then spared everyone. The second was a special on a
different night than the elimination; with no drama, ratings dipped,
hurting the bid for donations.

“The competition episodes work better
than the specials,” Frot-Coutaz said. So now everything will be
packed into one night. “We're trying to figure out a way to make it
all fit into two hours.”

That will include time for films about
needs in the U.S. and Africa. Bill and Melinda Gates will talk about
their efforts there; Cook, the 2008 “Idol” winner, will show his
trip to Ethiopia.

“There is definitely a sense of hope
and an amazing vibrancy here,” Cook said by phone, during his visit
to a school in Addis Ababa. “Especially with the young girls at
this school.”

They are a key focus, said Elizabeth
Gore, who heads two United Nations Foundation groups.

“Girls make up 70 per cent of the
world's 130 million out-of-school youth,” she said. Some don't have
access or can't afford school, she said; for others it's “as simple
as the fact that they have to go fetch water for six to 15 hours a
day, because they don't have water holes nearby.”

Cook met a 7-year-old orphan at the
school. “She is one of the most vibrant, joyous girls that I think
I've ever met,” he said. “The girls at the school genuinely want
to have an education …. I remember being 7 years old and I didn't
have that foresight. These girls are wise beyond their years.”

He also met a 19-year-old who has been
at the school for five years. “She actually escaped from a rural
area … on her own, to escape early marriage and sex trade.”

In such areas, Gore said, change isn't
expensive. “When you go and see these places and what the need is,
$10 can literally change someone's life.”

That's a change in attitude,
Frot-Coutaz said. The first two rounds of “Idol Gives Back,” in
2007 and 2008, raised a combined $140 million. When the recession
hit, “Idol” skipped last year (with the possibility of making it
only once every two years) and now talks more about small donations.

It will be “much more low-key,”
Frot-Coutaz said. “Whatever people donate will be great. We realize
that we can't go into this with the same expectations.”

Viewers can, though. They can expect
moments of strong emotion.

– “Idol Gives Back”

– 8-10 p.m. Wednesday, Fox

– Viewers will be asked for
donations. This year, producers say, slightly more will stay in the
U.S. than will go overseas. The groups involved include Malaria No
More, Feeding America, Children's Health Fund, United Nations
Foundation and the U.S. branch of Save the Children.