(SPOILERS) But not a cute iccle one. There are plenty of allegedly terrible movies whose consensus status I have no strong wish to verify. Nor do I have a particularly yen for the musical oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And even less of one for the very existence of portly putz James Corden, let alone witnessing him smugging his way across the screen. But some car crashes just need to be witnessed first-hand, so the horror acts as a warning to any who’d drive without due care and attention in future. I’d seen the trailers for Cats, so I was fully aware of the aberrant design. I had also been warned there’s pretty much no plot – but hey, it’s a musical. And I knew Tom Hooper was “directing”, so I was prepared for an aesthetically ghastly mess of grotesque cat people and incoherent visuals and faintly dull with it. So if there’s any surprise to report, it’s that I didn’t entirely hate it.
Which is to say, Cats is not a good movie. And it’s not a good movie musical. While I’m not the genre’s greatest champion, I do know that one needs to be sympathetic to the challenges of choreography, framing and editing to get the most from putting the form on screen. Tom Hooper probably had some great choreographers on hand, but his random approach to shot choices and cutting renders much of the good work null and void. He’s a guy who favours hand-held medium shots and composing – if you can call it that – a scene or sequence in the editing room, so quite why his insensitivity keeps returning to musicals – his last was Les Misérables – is a real poser. Perhaps he really hated Cats and wanted to arch his back and hiss at Lloyd Webber (Andrew certainly didn’t like the movie). Cats is also, even aside from the costumes/prosthetics/virtual prosthetics, quite an ugly movie. It’s difficult to tell how much of that is cinematographer Christopher Ross and how much is the diffuse CGI sheen spreading over the image like gangrene.
And yet, I found there was something rather mesmerising about the whole bizarre spectacle. Even as I was unable to appreciate the effort involved in the dancing – well, maybe occasionally, when someone was central to the frame and the shot was wide enough – and conscious that the songs lacked anything in the way of sparkle (obviously, Memory is the exception, an anthem for the ages, which is probably about the length of time before it needs to be heard again). And most of the known performers acquit themselves wretchedly: Judi Dench and Ian McKellen don’t even try to sing, which is to their credit; Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift offer lung power but little else; Idris Elba is hilariously embarrassing, and is increasingly confirming something I’ve suspected for some time – that he’s actually a bit shit, and The Wire was some kind of aberration; Ray Winstone… Gawd ’elp us. Ray Winstone. Well, to be fair to Ray, it isn’t like he could go anywhere but down; Rebel Wilson and Corden provide “laughs”.
But still. This really is the stuff of cult movies, because the artistic sensibility overseeing the whole is so impaired, so utterly without appreciation of what works and what doesn’t, that the resulting mess ricochets between baffling choices and ones so wrong headed they could be mistaken for inspired. Oversized cutlery and visible green screen. Much has been written about the cat costumes/effects to realise them and they are kind of nightmarish. While these feline humans are conspicuously absent any genitalia or that feline favourite, the butthole (I mean to say, it’s inconceivable that you’d have a production focussing on cats and so conspicuously avoid it), the sheer “naked fur” cat outfits bring a host of concomitant concerns. There are occasions when you’re fully expecting the piece to break down into some kind of orgiastic cat Caligula. The sight of Rebel Wilson lounging expansively on her cushion is the full-on “furry” experience I just did not need.
It may be the death of a potential movie career, but Francesca Hayward’s fine in the lead role, and the only performer – except maybe for Swift, probably for contractual reasons in her case – for whom the makeup does not become aesthetically unpleasant (which makes it the more surprising that none of the other cats attempt to sniff her bottom). With other felines, it was a case of puzzling over why unknown performers ended up resembling known ones when dressed as cats. So there was Christoph Waltz (actually Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap). And there was Robert Pattison (Laurie Davidson as Mr Mistoffelees).
I expected the biggest issue with Cats – beyond Hooper, and beyond the cats – would be the lack of any momentum. Even by musical standards, it’s something of an anomaly, eschewing anything but the most basic structure in favour, essentially, of a rollcall of songs about the featured felines (as an audition to go to cat heaven and be reborn). Some got on my tits, usually because they were performed by tits (Corden, Elba, Wilson). Mostly though I was transfixed with a strange, horrified awe at what was unfolding before me.
Webber was offering a tribute, if you can call it that, to the work of TS Elliott, with most of songs deriving from his poetry and cat-world concepts (ideally, then, this ought to have been an animation – failing the Jim Cameron “live-action” version – but I suspect the chief objection was the dance side, fairly unproven as a draw in that medium outside of Fantasia). Somehow, that didn’t happen. It’s true that I was stuck attempting to work out whether Macavity (Elba) had magical powers and if so how extensive they were (he spirits other cats away), and whether the Heaviside Layer was intended as a big scam or delusion on the part of Old Deuteronomy (Dench) and so suggesting some kind of pro-atheist, anti-religious position. Mostly on the grounds that the winning cat appears to be sent heavenwards in a balloon where it will quite clearly expire. At least, logically. But then I got wondering about the Heaviside Layer itself, and was most surprised to learn it wasn’t merely some mangled cat-speak version of Nadsat.
Oliver Heaviside was a unitarian who mocked faith in a supreme being and “advanced the idea that the Earth’s uppermost atmosphere contained… the ionosphere”. From this, he proposed that a conducting layer allowed radio waves to follow the Earth’s curvature instead of travelling into space. The Kennelly -Heaviside Layer is named after him (well, partly). It’s interesting that this, the nigh-uppermost part of our immediate realm, in terms of traditional science, but also the reach of our dome in terms of alternative proposals, should form the basis for Eliot’s cat heaven.
Eliot’s conception appeared in material sent to Lloyd Webber by Eliot’s widow, but it’s also referenced in his 1939 play The Family Reunion. As to Eliot’s beliefs, while he was, to outward appearances, of traditional Christian faith, his “esoteric, more private spirituality, expressed through his poetry in which Eliot incorporates multiple beliefs into one new whole”. Whether his perception extended to cosmological speculation is uncertain, but it seems Cats’ rebirth cycle was one added by Trevor Nunn, riffing on nine lives. The reaching of heaven through ascending to the heavens is very Tower of Babel-ish, but in this context – since we haven’t been told it’s a sham – it does appear to be a viable option for cats. Lest you were in doubt, though “The Heaviside layer is not heaven or the afterlife for fictional musical cats but rather a part of the Earth’s atmosphere which can be used to bounce radio waves”. I’m glad that’s cleared that up.
Heaviside was into granite furniture, so I figure he’d have been a much more engaging celebrity personality than Brian bleedin’ Cox. He probably wouldn’t have held back either about the quality of Cats. Eliot, even given his religious restraint, might have had cause to curse. The Razzies awarded it Worst Picture, which surely means it can’t be all bad. Cats is a grand folly, but as is usually the case in the best – or worst – of these, it’s a fascinating one.