CATS - A Love Letter to Cinema
Cats released in the UK on December 20th 2019, just over a year ago. Since the release of its first trailer, the film was the subject to extreme mockery and sparked genuine terror in the hearts of many.
At the time I was working in a movie theatre as a projectionist and spent a large portion of my time removing the trailer from children's films, refusing to let their nightmares be on my hands...
Indeed the trailer was not only horrifyingly scary but massively confusing, even for those familiar with the original musical.
From the disturbing, almost floating faces on the animal-human hybrids, to the erratic scale of the world and props around the characters. The trailer was almost perfectly designed to generate discussion.
A video released by Taylor Swift the day before the trailer showcased the dance choreography, the production design and the impressive cast, teasing the “digital fur technology” that would dazzle audiences. Indeed the technology was effective but the art direction of the cats managed to bypass the Uncanny Valley, instead diving straight into the Grand Canyon of Virtual Fear.
Director Tom Hooper was an awards circuit darling, thanks to films such as The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl and fellow musical Les Miserables. Though commercially successful his work has always faced criticism for his bizarre framing, ill-informed historical perspectives (especially Danish Girl) and the lack of expertise in directing performances. In Les Miserables he insisted on recording the songs on-set, a practise never using in musical film-making. Still, at least there was a clear through-line in terms of his penchant for period pieces. To date, his most successful work is his miniseries- John Adams, which makes his choice in directing Cats even more bizarre.
The creepy discordant circus music did it no favours as an intended Christmas musical extravaganza.
“You’re invited to the most joyous event of the Holiday Season!” claimed the second trailer. Perhaps a grandiose statement about a feline talent(?) show but in a year without cinemas I argue that it’s truer than the marketing team could have ever realised.
Releasing as a big Christmas film in tandem with The Rise of Skywalker was a fascinating show of confidence. The Star Wars film ended up being the worst-reviewed in the franchise’s forty-odd year history, criticised for its dull retcons, nonsensical plotting, and lack of imagination. But in comparison to Cats, it was joyous. Where Star Wars attempted to please everybody, resulting in blandness, Cats appealed to nobody, resulting in a perverse, maddeningly funny spectacle.
In a business so focused on production oversight, mass appeal and cinematic universes (imagine if this had been a hit? Cats: Endgame within the decade) Cats is a true outlier.
Though many of its criticisms could be levelled at the source material too. Cats on Broadway being an adaptation of TS Eliot’s poems it was more of a showcase of impressive stagecraft, dancing, leg-warmers and of course the cocaine-fueled decisions of 80’s creativity. Cats' most famous song was a late addition, notably not remotely related to TS Eliot, instead a leftover from Andrew Lloyd Webber. Needing a showstopper he added Memory, tellingly both the best song in the show and the one song with nothing to do with “Jellicle” Cats.
Despite all of my trepidation, I was overjoyed to receive the text “do you wanna go see Cats?” from a friend last December.
My curiosity and penchant for depravity had won me to the idea of seeing it but I was far too nervous to ask anyone, lest they hold it against me forever. Of course, alcohol was necessary for such an act, vodka being my weapon of choice. Before I’m accused of not supporting cinemas I also ordered an enormous, overpriced 7-up for mixing purposes.
The next two hours was an incredible fever dream. The opening sequence is one of the strangest, scariest things I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen. Masses of writhing bodies covered in fur crawling over rooftops, towards the camera before exploding into a song “explaining” what a Jellicle cat was. I was paralysed, I didn’t want to look yet couldn’t stop. Until a vital part of this song, where the music ceased and Idris Elba’s Macavity asked “…what?”. I exploded into laughter, the unbearable tension broken.
From here the film became a celebration of bad ideas and the poorest taste. From Rebel Wilson peeling off her skin before consuming children (in mouse and cockroach flavours) to Jason Derulo’s deranged and inappropriate dry-humping his co-stars as he sang about milk, it was insanity. It seemed like Tom Hooper was getting years of repressed imaginings onto the big screen.
The remarkably thin plot about a cat cabal of cultists having a talent show where the winner would be reborn was irrelevant. This was a showcase of embarrassment, celebrities being broken down as if Eric Andre had created a musical for them to star in at gunpoint.
The cackling in the theatre was infectious, especially as the hypnotically tedious “Magical Mr. Mistofolees” number droned on I found myself inadvertently chiming in when his magic spell safely returned Judi Dench to their fold. Its almost as if I had contributed through my panto-like participation. Thus is the power of vodka and Cats.
There has been much talk this year about the future of cinemas. HBO Max will be the home of future Warner Bros releases, much to the chagrin of directors like Chris Nolan and Denis Villeneuve.
Disney has made announcements of future animations, and live-action retellings premiering on their service. Respected veterans such as Scorsese, the Coens, Spike Lee, and David Fincher have made their most recent work as Netflix originals. This was a subject of concern for film lovers before COVID-19 and now it seems to be a make or break time for the industry.
Regardless of its quality, Cats was a talking point, one that may have not existed if it wasn't for this huge disaster of a big Hollywood production going on the big screen for all to see.
It may seem foolish to talk about a critical and commercial flop at this time yet Cats remains one of the finest theatrical experiences of my life. To sit in the dark with strangers and simultaneously experience horror, joy, revulsion… How can streaming replicate that?
“Memory” is the best part of Cats but it’s something I hope cinema doesn’t become.
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