Friday, May 29, 2020

Cats: Review

My only prior association with Cats was committing to memory TS Eliot’s “Macavity: The Mystery Cat" and “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat", both of which were in our junior school syllabus. But I hadn’t seen or heard Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical in any form – until this morning, when I, along with a young couple (who bailed at halftime) and an older Caucasian woman (who walked in half an hour late), watched Tom Hooper’s film adaptation. If you’re in the UK or the US and are finding Cats too weird for words, imagine what it must look like in countries that have an entirely different culture of stage musicals and for whom “Memory" is a Maroon 5 song.

Just because it’s on the big screen, does that mean it’s cinema? I don’t think I’ve seen another commercially intended movie which sticks to its stage origins so determinedly. Even the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and ‘40s – made at a time when musical theatre was popular culture – would throw in some backstage banter and a romantic track between numbers. But Cats only has songs, with nothing to glue them together. I emerged with the uncomfortable sensation of having watched a 100-minute music video.

That’s not the only reason for discomfort. The idea seems to have been: Cats, but sexy. The problem is that Hooper is a deeply unsexy director, whose last three films, The King’s Speech, Les Misérables and The Danish Girl, have anti-aphrodisiac properties matched only by the films of Christopher Nolan. Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots lying on her back, scratching her thighs, unzipping her cat costume to reveal another cat costume beneath, is scarring (though think what John Waters would have made of it). For all the preening and sashaying, there’s little actual heat. With the exception of Steven McRae’s Skimbleshanks, who looks like he’s stepped out of a Kenneth Anger film, this might be the most heterosexual musical ever filmed.

Spare a thought for the cast, who are not only asked to perform show tunes in body-hugging costumes, but are seemingly left to their own devices by Hooper. There’s no apparent consensus on whether they’re supposed to be exhibiting human or feline behavior – so they do a bit of both (unless they’re Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, in which case they can’t be bothered). They have tails but no claws. They have fur all over, except on their hands, which are human hands. Some of them wear clothes, some don’t; some make cat sounds, some don’t; there are no rules.

After a point, the film gives up the ghost of cinema, moves indoors and becomes a filmed stage musical. There’s a dance-off which somehow made me think of Gaspar Noe’s Climax, another musical made in defiance, maybe even contempt, of its audience. But that film had exceptional dancing and a filthy, unflagging energy. Cats has nothing to show for 100 million dollars except a dedication to making the worst possible aesthetic decisions at every step. Then again, another musical did the same thing not long ago. It was called Bohemian Rhapsody and it made 900 million dollars.

This review appeared in Mint.

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