I don’t write a lot of reviews, and certainly don’t consider myself a critic, but this was a special occasion.
Okay, here’s my sort of nuts and bolts low-down on CATS as a film. I may or may not publish a treatise on CATS as a cultural phenomena and legitimate work of art if at some point if I can find time to really flesh it out the way I want to, which is a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing but here we are. Merry Christmas, God Bless Us everyone.
The fact that I find myself having so much to say about CATS is really surprising to me, probably not so much to anyone else, and reflective of the fact that whether we like it or not, CATS is a part of the Western Cultural Consciousness as much as Santa Claus, Star Wars, and Tiny Tim, and thus its Christmas opening not only makes sense, but is as vital to the place it will hold, I sincerely hope, for many years to come as the cult film it is destined to be. Yes, you heard that right: I hope this film becomes a touchstone because it deserves to be. But to be clear, that is not the same thing as me saying this is like, A Really Good Movie. It may, however, in the words of CodyRishell, be “a very brave one. I mean, nobody else has made a movie like this.” And he’s right. Certainly if we’re talking mainstream, big budget, Western films of the last twenty-five years. Bollywood is pumping out like a hundred of these a year.
When CATS first opened on Broadway, it was the same thing: nobody else had really done something like it. Not on Broadway, for sure. Off-Broadway and beyond, shows like CATS had most certainly existed. In fact, when you boil CATS down to its core, it basically sounds like half of the avant-garde theater thesis I’ve seen: humans in body suits, singing and moving to the poetry of another era set to contemporary music making a sly social commentary on the way we live now while hiding behind a smoke screen of fantastical elements that include vaguely theological implications. That someone decided to produce on a grand scale what most of us who work in theater look back on sheepishly as studio work we now think of as misguided and pretentious is part of what I think rubs some people wrong about CATS and reminds me of a remark Stephen Sondheim made once about how he’d been on the receiving end of jealousy from artists in the experimental theater world who were mostly pissed that he and Hal Prince were doing what they were doing, but making money from it. That said, I think the real take away is that the vitriol which CATS inspires is indicative of why it needs to be taken seriously, if only because it raises the question of why we’re so damn offended by something which so obviously does not take itself seriously, and never has, as far as I can tell. All the criticism lobbed at CATS seems to stem from the idea that anyone involved with the creation of the film ever expected or intended for this to be viewed as anything other than a whimsical satire of human society. But like, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life in the theater, it’s that people rarely “get” satire. And by people I mean 95% of theater critics. Normal humans, I think, often do get satire and that’s because they are usually more likely to just accept a work of art on its terms and then debate if they agree with/enjoy the stance the art is taking and how its communicating it, vs. attempting to compare that art with other art in the never-ending What Art Is Worthy hierarchy war that is the obsession and lifeblood of much art criticism. That CATS the film will be a cult film vs a mainstream success like the Broadway show was, is, I think, reflective of an era where more everyday audience members now think of themselves as legit critics BUT, I’m gonna save that for the opus. Let’s get down to what I think of the film itself.
Full disclosure: CATS was the first Broadway show I ever saw, and it basically blew my eight year old mind (true story, I SCREAMED, “The Cats are in the audience! The Cats are real, Dad!” the first time I saw the show) so I am always going to have a fondness for it, none of which clouds my extremely thought out assertion that it’s actually also legitimately good art, if not exactly good theater, which I don’t think it aspires to be, a good musical, which I also don’t think it aspires to be, or something for everybody, which nothing can be. Additionally, I saw it in a movie theater full of Bay Area theater people, an event organized by Heather Orth. The audience included many friends and theater colleagues (Marissa Skudlarek, Juliana Lustenader, John Andrew, Alisha Ehrlich, Genevieve Perdue, Carl Lucania, Justin Patrick Lopez, Anthony Frederick Aranda, Gabriel Ross, Roy Benjamin Eikleberry, Mauricio Suarez, Max Seijas, Donna Fujita, Ted Zoldan, Ella Ruth Francis, Valerie Fachman, and those are just the people I personally chatted with) and because we were the bulk of the audience, and all wearing cat ears provided by Heather, we felt it was acceptable to talk during the film, and sing. I personally pleaded with everyone to sing along to “Magical Mister Mistoffelees”. Needless to say, my viewing of CATS is not only biased, but was made magical in a way many other people’s probably won’t be… unless CATS becomes something akin to ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Which I kind of think it should be. Finally, my viewing was enhanced by the part where my boyfriend had never seen the show, knew nothing about it, and had not even heard the music. Everything is always better when we get to experience it through the eyes of someone who is experiencing it for the first time.
So, yeah, I enjoyed the film. I may have even almost loved it. Parts of it are TERRIBLE and I’m sad to say, those parts are entirely due to performances by actors I normally love: Rebel Wilson and James Corden, both of whom are doing the only thing worse than looking embarrassed to be there (Ray Winstone): trying too god damn hard to “make it work.” Both attack their respective roles with schtick that has worked for them before in other films, and it’s obvious they had zero confidence in the material. Compare this to Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, who knock their roles out of the park by playing them to the hilt. I don’t know if they’ve both reached the point of their careers where they just don’t give a fuck, but the fact is, they embody their roles without sarcasm or self-consciousness and it’s both eerie and endearing at the same time- which is the response I think you’re generally supposed to have to CATS as a whole.
Of the pop stars, Taylor Swift wins the day. I think she knows exactly what movie she is in and like the more seasoned actors she’s made a choice to lean in with a vengeance and let God sort it out if she’s good or not. And to be clear: I never thought I’d write this sentence either, but: Taylor Swift is really good. She nails her one song with exactly the right attitude and subtext, and her performance is, of the celebrity cast, the only one which would work in an actual performance of CATS. Plus, whatever genius put her on a crescent moon flying around exploding kitty cocaine needs to be given an award for Most Wiling To Go There. An award we should be giving more artists, frankly, in any medium because boy is a lot of contemporary art largely bloodless self-righteous preachy banality but again, let’s save that for the opus. Taylor Swift makes it work, and certainly holds her own better than Jason Derulo, who is a very sexy man with a good voice, it’s true, but kind of looks like he has no idea what’s going on around him at any given point in the film, and may or may not be improvising all his choreography. Jennifer Hudson is perfectly serviceable and basically does exactly what we’ve come to expect of her. Golf claps.
Where the movie shines, is in the non-celebrity cast, the gem of which is Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks, whose song is also the single best five minutes of the movie, after the surrealist acid trip masterpiece which is the Jellicle Ball. McRae’s dancing is off the hook excellent and it’s been captured in the way that only a film can capture dance, and augmented with an inspired fantasia of train tracks and boxcars. As the tomcat narrator, Munkustrap (FYI, Autocorrect knows that name!), Robbie Fairchild is perfect: sexy, masculine, confident, sturdy, noble, and just a tiny bit dangerous. His singing is also the best actual singing in the film, tonally speaking but more importantly in his careful and precise phrasing of the complicated lyrics his character must handle being the principal source of exposition in the piece (Cassandra, Demeter, Jellylorum, and Bombalurina, all of whom share some of that burden in the stageshow, have all had their parts tremendously reduced). His eyes are electric. As the White Cat, Victoria, prima ballerina Franchesa Hayward gives a performance that in a more conventional film people were allowed to like without being ashamed of, would be a breakthrough performance. Her dancing is elegant, exquisite in places, the pas de deux with Fairchild at the top of the evening being particularly gorgeous and the first “Wow” moment of the film. Normally a silent role, Victoria has been elevated to principal character here, our protagonist and entry to the world of the film, and Hayward acts well too, her face as expressive as her body, and her singing, while airy and light, is sweet and character appropriate. You genuinely like her. Mette Towley, Jonadette Carpio, and Daniela Norman all provide precise and expert backup in roles that were largely cut to increase the focus on Victoria and the characters played by the celebrity cast.
As an adaptation of a stage musical, I think this is a much better film than Hooper’s attempt at LES MISERABLES, and I’m sure that’s partly because the essential dance element of the show required him to open up his usually claustrophobic directorial style. This movie actually feels like a movie in the best sense, embracing its potential to do what can’t be done in any other medium, instead of getting bogged down with attempts at realism of any kind, honestly thumbing its nose with wicked abandon at the current vogue of realism and “grit” which permeates contemporary film-making. Yes, it’s ridiculous, virtually plotless, and over the top- but so is MOULON ROUGE, and unlike that movie this one doesn’t pretend to be about real humans or real feelings (even though it kind of is, and has a much darker spiritual and social subtext than MOULON ROUGE, or most operas to be frank, but again, let’s save that for the opus). Yes, there are moments when the scale doesn’t make any sense, but that also happened in LORD OF THE RINGS and we forgave it. Yes, some of the CGI is crappy, but we forgave far worse in the Harry Potter films. Sure, some of the directorial choices are wildly uncomfortable (children as mice) but again, CATS should be mildly uncomfortable, perhaps even disturbing, and if you’re gonna do CATS you should do CATS and lean in to the part where it’s basically a day in the life of a cult that centers around ascension as reward for having been the most extra cat in the coven. “When the cockroaches had human faces and the cats ate them anyway, I knew I was watching a movie that wasn’t apologizing for itself,” my boyfriend said to me afterwards. “I mean, I don’t know what I was watching, but I couldn’t stop watching it, if only because I was like, what are they gonna do next!” Full disclosure: he also cried during the first (and best) version of “Memory” and “Beautiful Ghosts”. “Who doesn’t want to make peace with their past?” he asserts afterwards, when I call him on it. “Who doesn’t want to feel like they’re part of a tribe, or will at least be accepted somewhere?” Considering we just watched a movie with 100 people all wearing cat ears, two days after the winter solstice, 8 days before the end of the decade, in the middle of a national political meltdown and on the brink of a global environmental one, I’m hard pressed to argue otherwise.
Which brings us, finally, to the artistic triumph of the film: The Jellicle Ball. Look, if you see this movie in theaters for no other reason, that ten minute sequence is worth it. Cinematic in a way I honestly didn’t think Hooper had it in him to be, it is gorgeously lit and shot, and the dancing, done entirely by the non-celebrity cast with back up from hip-hop duo Les Twins, is exhilarating: the audience I saw it with gasped and applauded multiple times. And can I just say that considering the number of times I’ve had people tell me I should see movies on the big screen because of the battle scenes or space ship chases, it’s refreshing to remember that the medium can be used to capture and glorify things other than horrific violence. Is it tragic that we dress people as cats in order to justify watching them do something they’re good at besides kill one another? Yes. But that tragedy is ours, not the film’s. Which is why I think the sequence also captures what I think is at the core of CATS, both on stage and as a film, and that is a kind of wild, joyous abandon of all logic, reason, pretention and yes, standards, but maybe standards its okay to let go of because not every moment of our lives needs to be so dire, so constantly expressed in volatility, and sometimes the purpose of art is to not only remind us of that, but to seduce us (or even push us) into creating a space where we can step outside our everyday experience and you know… live as we dream. Not that most of us are dreaming of being cats but I think a lot of us dream of living as celebrants rather than combatants.
John Guare, in my favorite play of all time, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, slyly celebrates CATS as the epitome of “low culture” due to its simplicity and obviousness (in contrast to the high concept fine art of Kandinsky), by centering his narrative around the various tensions of contemporary American identity with the recurring joke that Sidney Pottier is making a film of CATS. Held up as not only an affront to good taste (though who determines that taste for whom is also questioned by the play), but arguably an ethically dubious assault on Art in general, he pens a dream sequence in which his heroine confronts the would be auteur of CATS about this goal, and it is with this I will close my review. Read it several times if you need to, but I think it speaks volumes about exactly why we needed this film, those of us who did, and why it will not only find its audience, but deserves one:
“OUISA: Sidney? What troubles you? Is it right to make a movie of CATS?
SIDNEY: I’ll tell you why I have to make a movie of CATS. I know what CATS is, Louisa. May I call you Louisa? I have no illusions about the merits of CATS. But the world has been too heavy with all the right to lifers. Protect the lives of the unborn. Constitutional amendments. Marches! When does life begin? Or the converse. The end of life. The right to die. Why is life at this point in the twentieth century so focused on the very beginning of life and the very end of life? What about the eighty years we have to live between those two inexorable bookends?
OUISA: And you can get all that into CATS?
SIDNEY: I’m going to try.
OUISA: Thank you. Thank you. You shall.”
– John Guare, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION