Man, I started this mini-season of The Sing-Off with high hopes, but the show’s lazy devotion to the tired-ass tropes of the singing-competition genre is wearing me down. I mean, we’ve already got the shiny floor and the overwritten host copy and the comedy packages, so I should have seen Movie Night coming. But they got me, you guys. Bang-bang, my a cappella contest shot me down. Tonight, the remaining six groups will sing songs from famous movies, or songs that have the same name as movies, or songs that were playing in the background of scenes in movies. Join me and together let us count down the seconds until “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
Oh, also, like every one of these shows, there’s a big, clunky opening number. Tonight, it is “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” from Dirty Dancing. It makes me wish someone would put me in a corner, but in a “final ten seconds of The Blair Witch Project” kind of way. The bass guy from Home Free sings the Bill Medley opening, and he does a solid job, but opening numbers can’t help but be tragically shabby. So much self-conscious dancing to simple choreography! Let’s not do these anymore. I’m looking at you, American Idol.
Nick introduces our genre-standard three judges, who are all people I’d rather hear from for three minutes than watch a cappella groups mentally count off their steps: Ben Folds (“the brains of the judges table!”), Jewel (“the beauty!”), and Shawn Stockman (“the vocal muscle,” because completing the alliteration and calling the African-American guy “the brawn” would be racially weird). And tonight, we will be having three separate Ultimate Sing-Offs, which won’t be completely Ultimate because only two groups will be going home. It is now that I realize The Sing-Off is indulging in the greatest of all singing-competition-show cliches: keeping us here twice as long as we need to be.
Home Free: “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison
Nick calls “Oh, Pretty Woman” “the title track from the movie Pretty Woman,” which I guess is technically true but feels all kinds of wrong. In their backstage package, the bass guy says, “You might expect us to do a song from a western, because we like country music, but we really love chick flicks.” Okay: western movies absolutely never have country songs in them, and Pretty Woman is fun for both genders and everyone in between. Performance-wise, it’s very Oak Ridge Boys, and it’s been a while since country radio has played something like that. But country labels will snap them up. If Bucky Covington can have a career, so can these guys. This performance is so rich, I don’t even notice that they don’t put in the song’s famous bass line until the very end. I will need for lead singer Austin to take the hairband off his head, because he looks a great deal like a Midwestern tennis mom. The judges love it. I am going to stop typing that sentence, because the judges always love it.
Vocal Rush: “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins
In a refreshing change of pace, the group’s viciously talented vocal percussionist — who looks like Ariana Grande, and therefore her beats startle me every single time — will be singing the first verse solo. And guess what: Girl can sing! (And then she gets right back into beatboxing and again it is startling.) There is a nice, very Pitch Perfect vocal swell to the performance. Throughout, they keep it simple, and in a show that can overdo the theatrics, it’s effective. My one complaint is that they totally Carnie Wilson the big girl in the group; everyone is in tight dresses except her, whom they throw in a sexless pantsuit. Let them curves out! America can handle it! You are beautiful, big girl! (I might be saying all of this to and about a 14-year-old girl, and it feels worse than you would think.)
AcoUstiKats: “Old Time Rock & Roll” by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
It is the Christmas season, a time for charity and forgiveness, so I will not get into the boys’ attempt at a Hangover-style comedy sketch. You’re welcome, kids! I have a soft spot for these guys, and I can’t decide whether it’s because of or in spite of the fact that their main spokesman looks like a toddler in a very old photograph. They do an inventive arrangement of this song —which we have all heard so many times by now — by mimicking the kinds of music the lyrics mention: disco, country, etc. It’s something. But when they take the stage in matching red pants, I say to myself: “Those are gonna be breakaway Bonobos.” Indeed, I am correct: three of the kids whip their pants off in an homage to the famous Risky Business scene in which Tom Cruise makes unsupervised teenage fun seem like the kind of thing you’ve rehearsed a million times.
Filharmonics: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith
Well, here we go. Okay, I am pro-Filharmonics, but this song is a lukewarm noodle. Their version is what you think it is: Any second-tier boy band in 1999 could have done something similar. But they have charisma, they are dressed like the Versace Army, and the big guy can BLOW. During judgment time, he ugly-cries, and I love it when boys express vulnerability, so I am back onboard. Ben calls them too cymbal-heavy, which is a pretty fine criticism, but a good one.
VoicePlay: “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds
From my least favorite overplayed movie theme song to my absolute No. 1 most cherished. Man, oh man — you try this one, you’d better come correct. And though all of their voices are individually just fine, the cake does not rise. They don’t build toward anything, and they’re so concerned with trying to stage it, they forget their harmonies. It is nice to see the bald guy come front and center and sing some leads, but it’s too little too late. But here’s the real problem, and this is what can happen when you reach for the theatrics: They are dressed like the characters from The Breakfast Club, but there are six of them, so we have the Popular Girl, the Jock, the Burnout, the Geek, the Weirdo, and … the Gimp from “Pulp Fiction?” Shawn says he wanted the song to end on a stronger note. I just wanted it to end.
Ten: “Skyfall” by Adele
Ten is my favorite of the bunch; there, I said it. They understand dynamics, their heart is in it, and they’ve been in the business long enough to understand disappointment and heartbreak. Here’s how good they are: They actually manage to make this song interesting! Adele couldn’t even do that, and she made us buy “Rumour Has It!” (You know, the title track from the Jennifer Aniston classic Rumor Has It.) They hold back at the beginning, but by the end, it is a straight gospel rave-up. I have found Jesus, and her Afro is gorgeous.
And then it’s time for the Three! Ultimate! Sing-Offs! Which aren’t really sing-offs, exactly, because there’s no telling which two groups will end up being sent home. What these are are duets. And a great big waste of our time.
1) VoicePlay vs. AcoUstiKats, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor
Okay. So we know all of these people can sing. THEY all know they can sing. Everyone knows they can harmonize. But unfortunately, with so much on the line, everyone feels like they have to stand out, and for these two groups, that means focusing on the staging. As good as this duet may sound, it is lost in a college sketch group and/or theme park show blur of Jane Fonda Workout moves and air punches. Phooey.
2) Vocal Rush vs. Ten, “Fame” by Irene Cara
Here’s an example of what the above groups could have done if they weren’t trying to be so damn cute. These groups have the bright idea that if their duet sounds flawless, maybe neither group will go home. So they sing and harmonize and manage to put together a fun, cohesive number. They bring out the best in each other. This is actually good fun; it’s a little goofy, and its goofiness is charming for not being front and center.
3) Home Free vs. Filharmonic, “I’m Alright” by Kenny Loggins
Which leaves us with the all-boy onslaught. Their performance straddles the line between the previous two; the focus is on the harmonies, with a dollop of sketch-comedy narrative. It’s like the Aerosmith/Run DMC “Walk This Way” video, with each group teaching the other their dance moves. The big beardy guy pops up out of the center of the group at the end and dances like the gopher at the climax of Caddyshack. It’s really irritating, but you have to do something, I guess.
So that’s it! Two groups are going home, and though I doubted they’d send both halves of an Ultimate Sing-Off home at the same time, who could resist: Good-bye, VoicePlay and AcoUstiKats. Focus on the song next time. The song and the pants.
Tomorrow: some other tired theme, probably! Happy holidays!