Let me get this out of the way first: Yes, Tom Hooper’s CATS is not considered a ‘good’ film or even an adequate adaptation, and that reputation is well-earned. It’s an absolute mess; there’s a lot of miscasting, the visual effects are wall-to-wall uncanny valley, and, well, let’s just say it feels like a cocaine-fueled revisiting of an already cocaine-fueled theatrical work. (Also: I am pretty sure T.S. Eliot would not approve of his cat poems being reworked in this way.) For a work that is so absolutely bonkers — we’re living in a musical feline-based underworld where everyone is vying for a spot to ascend to a higher plane that can only be deigned by what is essentially a Queen cat — it is surprisingly boring!
(That’s basically the entire story as I understand it, apart from some weird offshoots about ancillary cats and Idris Elba lapping it up as a villain who has some weird superpower that apparently puts folks in what I believe is his version of purgatory. Or he just transports them to a boat/harbor? Frankly, it doesn’t really matter.)
Now that I’ve addressed that: I still love Tom Hooper’s adaptation.
Again: this is not what one would consider a ‘good’ film. It’s a lot of noise and bluster and every facet of the film distracts from anything that would normally be considered merit-worthy.
However, it has a lot of charm, and most of that is due to the fact that this feels so earnest only in the way that a theatrical musical can get away with. Apart from the woeful casting of James Corden and Rebel Wilson — both very game and talented performers but they chew the scenery so much that Corden actually vomits later in the film — everyone is emoting like mad. Hell, even fucking Dame Judi Dench almost pulls off what can only be called uh, fully presenting her crouch in an absolutely ridiculous CGI leg pull.
(Yes, I will circle back to the utter horniness of the film. Please be patient.)
Putting aside the very creepy visuals and absolutely warped sense of physical scale of these cats living in what is supposed to be a real world, and Corden & Wilson, CATS feels like a very odd, very surreal, very singular labor of love. The production design is astounding, presenting like an under-populated Gotham City with its neons and rain and wrought iron as opposed to the London it’s supposed to be. Francesca Hayward — a Principal ballerina for The Royal Ballet — is astounding in the lead role of Victoria; she’s all wide eyes and hurt and wonder and dexterity. She whips and twirls and effortlessly hurls herself around and it’s visually majestic. Ian McKellen practically steals the show with his number and the melancholy and sadness he conveys. Oh, and Robbie Fairchild with his longing looks? Yes.
The choreography is exceptional and the soundtrack hits all of the right notes, if you’re into Webber. (I am not the biggest fan, as I still have nightmares about playing the endlessly dull cello part of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in high school, but there are a lot of great songs here as well as some smashing callbacks and refrains!)
I’ve seen this film more times than you would think and yes, I have seen a stage production. (I did not care for the stage production, but that’s not the focus here.) The most recent time I viewed it was at Chicago’s Music Box as a ‘Rated Q’ event.
I wrote about ‘Rated Q’ in my post about BOUND but to summarize: ‘Rated Q’ is a monthly film event curated by Ramona Slick that extolls queer and underground works, while also adding a theatrical drag performance prelude that always entertains and titillates.
When I heard that ‘Rated Q’ would be screening CATS, I knew I had to attend. I thought I’d either love the experience or hate it, as I wasn’t sure if the audience would treat it like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW which, for some, is thrilling but feels overly self-indulgent to me.
I loved it.
I cannot overstate how much fun this screening was. This may sound like hyperbole but typing this post is painful as my left hand provokes pangs because of how over-enthusiastic my clapping was and how much my wedding ring is inappropriate for long-lived clapping. (Yes, my wedding ring is on my right hand. Orthodoxy and all that foisted–upon jazz.) I had a beaming grin on my face for the entirety of the film. I’m sure my voice is a tad worn out by how much I laughed and how vocal I was, and everyone else there was just as enthusiastic. Hell, I even sang along with some of the songs and I am not that kind of person!
I have never seen people dance in their seats at the Music Box. I have never seen folks pull out lighters and phones to sway to a scene at the Music Box. I have never seen folks wildly throw their arms up in the air at the Music Box, pumping along to the beat of a song. Now I have. (I realize that if I would attend one of Music Box’s ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW sing-a-longs I’d probably see all of the above, but realistically that simply isn’t going to happen.)
This was all elicited by a film that has been considered a laughing stock, a joke, an absolute failure, but for most of those that filled the seats — and it was a very well-attended screening for a Thursday night — for two hours everyone shared a love for this very weird film that by all rights shouldn’t even exist.
I endlessly harp about the experience of communal cinematic viewing, of watching a film with like-minded individuals who revel in a film they know inside-out and I hate to do so again but I have to: there is absolutely nothing like it. Part of that’s because it is very singular — every ‘Rated Q’ screening I’ve attended has been solo — but even if you’re attending with friends, your eyes are focused on the screen and for two hours you are part of this strange world and surrounded by the glow of collective enthusiasm and appreciation and, if you’re lucky, it means everything to you. This one screening meant everything to everyone and it was glorious.
You thought I forgot about the horniness? I did not! Every five minutes an audience member would shout out ‘Kiss!’ because this film feels like it’s on an Olympics-scale version of sweatiness and lust. While the cats never kiss, they are endlessly rubbing up against each other or throwing each other all sorts of wanting glances. I never thought I’d expect to feel such heat between a modern-day Judi Dench and a woman young enough to be her granddaughter, but yes, that definitely happens.
Also: most of these cats are essentially nude the entire time. However, Idris Elba wears a trenchcoat for most of the film but in the final act he throws it off and is finally naked and goddamn, the audience went wild, all sorts of gasps, and hooting and laughter and applause and it was all in the ‘Rated Q’ spirit.
Normally this is where I embed a trailer, but this is far more emblematic of the experience — for better or for worse — and is absolutely about trying recapture magic, so here you go:
If you’re in or around Chicago on September 14th 2023, the next ‘Rated Q’ screening is LEGALLY BLONDE. Join me, won’t you?