Monday, June 29, 2020

CATS 2019

T.S. Eliot: “The great thing about cats is that they possess two qualities
to an extreme degree—dignity and comicality.”
Director Tom Hooper: "Hold my beer."

Cats was the first Broadway musical I ever saw. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s insanely popular Jellicles-in-a-Junkyard musical was crafted from T.S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of pussy-centric poems: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and premiered in London’s West End in 1981. It opened on Broadway 17 months later in October of 1982. The Hamilton of its day, tickets for Cats were extremely hard to come by, but I managed to get one for the matinee performance on the afternoon of January 26, 1983, during what was my very first visit to New York. It was a long-saved-for, whirlwind dancer’s holiday of taking classes (given by Anne Reinking!), seeing shows (Little Shop of Horrors, Extremities, Agnes of God, and ill-fated Doug Henning musical Merlin), and being utterly thrilled that the city still looked the way it did in All That Jazz (1979), Fame (1980), and The Fan (1981). 
The Man Who Loved Cat-Dancing
25-year-old me in the throes of serious Cat-mania

I’d been studying dance for a little over two years at this point, ever since Xanadu’s muse-kiss inspired me to drop out of film school and take up classes at L.A.’s Dupree Dance Academy. The earliest time I remember hearing about Cats was when the studio’s owner, having just returned from seeing the London production, enthusiastically spread the word around the studio that Cats was the ultimate dancer’s musical. Declaring it less a voice or acting show and more a two-hour-and-20-minute dance concert, he proclaimed it a must-see experience for anyone seriously studying dance. To my ears, his speech stopped just short of making it mandatory for students interested in staying on at the Academy to make the pilgrimage to New York to see it when it finally opened. 
By description, Cats’ plotless structure sounded a lot to me like a "kitties on a picket fence" version of A Chorus Line: characters introduce themselves to the audience in song; compete against one another towards the attainment of a prized goal; the show concluding with the character who has fallen furthest from grace being given an 11th-hour shot at redemption.

But unlike A Chorus Line’s minimalist stage production, Cats promised uncommon spectacle and an immersive experience born of a $2-million near-gutting of Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater to create an oversized junkyard that spilled from the proscenium-free stage and overtook every square foot of auditorium space up to the balcony.
Cathouse Wednesday
Taken just before attending the 2pm Matinee performance of Cats

Thinking back to seeing Cats on Broadway—then just four months into what would become a record-breaking 18-year-run at the same theater—it’s nearly impossible to separate my thoughts on the show itself from the collective memories of my first visit to New York. But, putting as objective and impartial a face on it as I can, I have to say…Cats was fan-fucking-tastic!
An astounding, never-seen-anything-like-it, sung-through dance concert of captivating beauty and playful, witty charm. (The troweled-on Heaviside layer of mysticism and absurdly misguided self-seriousness was something Cats only acquired later in its legacy run. A byproduct of winning seven Tony Awards and evolving into a “Now & Forever” merchandising industry.)
Between the show’s soaring orchestrations and that breathtaking oversized set, I must have spent the entire evening with my mouth agape and my eyes as big as New York bagels. Goosebump sensations attended every then-unanticipated twist and turn of theatrical magic; my orchestra aisle seat even affording the once-in-a-lifetime experience of nearly being smacked in the face by the Jellicle balls of a frolicsome feline as he climbed over my chair.
Cats came along at a time when--thanks to MTV, aerobics, and TV shows like Fame and Solid Gold, dance was making a post-disco, pop-culture comeback. One of the reasons Cats didn't look nearly as bizarre to me in 1983 as it so clearly was, is because the design of the 'cats' in the show captured the emerging look of '80s concert rock. Enormous, mane-like hairdos, spandex, legwarmers, exaggerated makeup; all were staples of music acts of the day. Indeed, Cats was often criticized for being little more than a stage-bound MTV music video.

My effusive enthusiasm for Cats survived the ‘80s, but began to wane in the new decade, a victim of over immersion (I played my London & Broadway cast Cats albums to death); oversaturation (“Memory” overload…you couldn’t escape that song); and diminished novelty (Thundercats, Zoobilee Zoo, and kids face-painting parties really helped drive that whole anthropomorphic cat thing into the ground). By the time a neutered version of Cats was preserved on video in 1998, I just couldn’t bear to look at another dancer in mime-mode, cupping their hands into paws and whimsically brushing at their invisible whiskers.

Jump ahead to Christmas, 2019. All of Los Angles is covered, from bus shelter to highrise, with signs and billboards heralding the release of “The Most Joyous Event of the Holiday” and “The must-see film event of the year” – a $100 million, all-star, big-screen version of Cats. Had the time finally arrived where I was ready to give Cats another try in a different medium? Could an obscenely expensive movie version restore me, like a male Grizabella, to the Cats-fancier I once was?
Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
Idris Elba as Macavity the Mystery Cat
Taylor Swift as Bombalurina
Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theater Cat

"CATS - 2019"  or  "Jellicle rhymes with Hellicle"
On stage, Cats didn’t really require a plot. It was essentially a cat-sized British Music Hall variety revue featuring a tribe of felines deigning to grant us humans a song-and-dance tour of their secret, nocturnal world. In fact, I’m convinced that a large part of Cats’ phenomenal success is owed to it being one of those shows that can be enjoyed with little or no attention paid to what is happening. All spectacle, song, and movement, folks the world over were able to bring their parents and grandparents to Cats, let them doze off occasionally, and no one had to worry about that pesky business of losing the narrative thread. It may have challenged your sense of reason, but at no time did Cats place any demands on your concentration.
Cats' plot-free structure recalls that other story-free musical about a tribe (of hippies), the 1968 Broadway phenomenon HAIR; so much so that Webber's show could easily have been subtitled HAIR-ball.  (OK, I’m sorry about that.)
But I bring it up because the1978 film adaptation of Hair solved its plotless problem by inventing a naïve outsider character to serve as the audience surrogate (John Savage), and have him fall in with a tribe of New York hippies whose lives we learn about through song. Cats: The Movie borrows the same device. 
Set in London in the 1930s, Cats: The Movie (which I'll be calling it hereon out) has an abandoned housecat named Victoria taken in by a tribe of alley cats calling themselves Jellicles. She arrives on a special night, the night of the Jellicle Ball. An event in which cats dance and compete (in the vaguest ways imaginable) for a chance to ascend to the Heaviside Layer where they’ll be reborn into a new life (we never really find out what the Heaviside Layer is, but I'll lay bets it's something like the "Carousel" in Logan’s Run).
Francesca Hayward as Victoria
Her role as the tribe newbie in Cats serves the same 'stranger in a strange land' narrative purpose
as John Savage's transplanted Oklahoman Claude Hooper Bukowski in the film version of HAIR

Milos Forman was successful in adapting the film version of Hair in a manner both cinematic and true to the spirit of a show many had thought too dated for contemporary relevance. Alas, in bringing Cats to the screen, director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) stumbles right out of the gate. I’m not aware of how many viable options exist for bringing Cats to the big screen (cartoon animation, stop-motion), but surely at the bottom of such a brief list had to be the idea of making it look like a musical version of The Island of Dr. Moreau crossed with the world’s most expensive PornHub “furries” video.
Some ideas present audiences with such a hefty obstacle to overcome—like saddling The Wiz (1978) with a 33-year-old Dorothy, or casting Mame (1974) with a leading lady who can neither sing nor dance—that no matter how successful other aspects of a production may be, the film never recovers. Such is the case with the decision to make Cats: The Movie with live actors transformed by the “magic” of DFT: digital fur technology.
Robert Fairchild as Munkustrap
Laurie Davidson as Magical Mr. Mistoffeles
I'm not sure anything could prepare me for the kind of keenly-detailed, hyper-realistic anthropomorphic abominations dreamed up by the digital mad scientists behind Cats: The Movie-- furred creatures with too-tiny heads (a result of having their ears moved to the top of their skulls), human hands and feet, and cat faces with lips and human teeth. But this weird conceit might have worked had the film confined its perspective solely to the cats and their cat world and never showed us a human being. Of course, the very first thing Cats: The Movie does IS show us the hands, legs, and feet of a human being (the woman seen tossing the sack-bound Victoria into the junk heap) leaving us to thereafter ponder a world in which cats and their owners share the very same physical characteristics. The mind blows a fuse.
The appearance of the cats is so disturbing, I don't think I heard a single word of the film's first number "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats"; my mind was turning somersaults trying to make sense of all that was being thrown at me. It was like watching the ending of Hereditary while listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber music on headphones.
A fantasy full of hellscape imagery, Cats: The Movie is one of the ugliest films I've ever seen.
And I've seen a naked, tattooed Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man
Despite my history with Cats, I didn’t come to the film as some kind of purist hoping for a to-the-letter replication of the stage production. Indeed, after having seen the trailer, my expectations for Cats: The Movie were exceedingly low. But I reasoned that surely, given  ALL that money spent and ALL that high-caliber talent assembled, at the very least I would come away with a memory of the music (which I’ve always liked), the dancing (which is plentiful in the film, when the merry-go-round on crack camerawork and ADD editing allow you to actually see it), and a “goosebump moment” or two. 
Well, despite my best efforts to suspend disbelief and allow myself to surrender to Tom Hooper’s vision; two significant elements sabotaged me at every turn: 1) the grossly unappealing, hard-to-look-at digital design of the cats themselves, and  2) the lazy inattention to a consistent size-scale for the cats. In one scene those Jellicles are as tall as doorknobs, the next, scarcely larger than a stemware glass.
Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger
I don’t play video games and I rarely watch superhero films, so the CGI-heavy look of Cats: The Movie—which, in the wide-angle dance sequences create a Colorforms® effect that makes the cats look as though they’re hovering above and in front of their surroundings—never really set right with me. The close-ups are even worse, for the film's digital cat technology is never more blood-curdling than when it's doing its job well. I found myself averting my eyes at the sight of a whiskered Sir Ian McKellen lapping milk out of a saucer, and, mood-killer though it be, I had to watch Grizabella's big number--beautifully sung, by the way---through the fingers covering my eyes...seriously, who the hell thought it was a good idea to have snot cascading like Niagara out of Jennifer Hudson’s human-nose-on-a-cat’s-face throughout her entire frigging song?
Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella the Glamour Cat
Cats are said to have 3 names. If she were my cat, I'd name her Mavis McMucus

Ultimately, watching the film became something of a spine-tingler; every time I found myself relaxing, something would come along to gross me out (James Corden coughing up a furball, for example) or make me curse whatever drugs these people were on to even conceive of such lunacy.
One has to dig up a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, especially one containing the illustrations of Edward Gorey or Nicolas Bentley, to get a sense of the charming wit and self-aware silliness of Eliot’s original cat poems written for his godchildren. You see fleeting glimpses of it in the corners of Cats: The Movie—for example, during “The Ad-dressing of Cats” (which Judi Dench knocks out of the park) there’s a lovely moment after Deuteronomy declares “A cat is not a dog!” and the cats surrounding her exchange glances like children lovingly humoring an elder parent who might be losing it. But those few and far-between hints of playfulness are largely obscured by eyesore production values and a ponderous solemnity that feels tonally at odds with the movie’s in-your-face bizarreness. 
Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) & Mungojerrie (Danny Collins)
Prepare to be discomfited if you find yourself thinking one of the cats looks hot.
Mungojerrie's got bod.

But I really shouldn’t complain about the film's self-serious tone when Cats: The Movie’s idea of silly fun are those twin atrocities: Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones. As written, both characters are delightful (Jennyanydots perhaps less so because she's clearly cracked), but as cast, they are simply ghastly. The thunderingly unfunny Rebel Wilson gives us endless pratfalls, David Cronenberg-levels of body horror (her skin comes off!), and Kafkaesque mice and cockroaches with human faces (the latter we get to see her devour moments after they’ve been introduced to us). If it sounds hellish, trust me, it's nothing compared to the visual experience.
With barely time to catch one’s breath, we’re confronted with the equally dire James Corden in an eye-assault number loaded with more pratfalls, spitting, and hits to the groin. All in support of the comic premise that the mere sight of an overweight cat eating is inherently hilarious. Both numbers are such irredeemably crass clusterfucks, they make John Waters movies look like Pixar productions. 
Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots
James Corden as Bustopher Jones

Grizabella's story arc, which represents Cats' underlying message (bet you're surprised to know there is one!): that everybody just wants to be accepted for who they are, each of us is unique and we should celebrate our differences, all while recognizing our shared humanity (or, unashamed felinity) and common dignity—is emphasized further in Cats: The Movie by the invention of Victoria and her forgettable Oscar-bait new song. It's a nice message for what is essentially a story for children. Even I (after subjecting myself to Cats: The Movie a second time to write this essay) felt my pugnaciously set jaw unclench when the unceasingly overwrought Grizabella finally smiles, and when Victoria finds her new family. 
And another theater and dance major finds her new gay bestie.
From the start, I just took it for granted that Mr. Mistoffeles was a sensitive gay cat, and everybody applauding the mastery of his magical powers at the end was a metaphor for his coming out of the closet. The film, however, kept thrusting the implausible pairing of Victoria and Mistoffeles at us, when all I wanted was for her to end up with the hunkier Munkustrap 

So that I might end things on an upbeat note here, let me just say that there were a few things about Cats: The Movie that I liked, very much indeed.
I'm a verified cornball, so I found it a thrill to hear Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s gorgeous score again after so many years, doubly thrilling to find I still knew all the words. Despite their familiarity, certain songs and musical passages  (especially during the Jellicle Ball, when Hooper could be trusted to let the music take over and not break the rhythm with cutaways) sustained their ability to move me and give me waterworks (calling to mind the line from Noel Coward’s Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”).
The dancing in the Jellicle Ball sequence is superb and marvelously staged; Jason Derulo, though ill-served by that terrible song, makes for a welcome, James Brownish Rum Tum Tugger; and Taylor Swift has fun playing Nancy to Idris Elba's Bill Sykes. But the one number to give me that much sought-after "goosebump moment" was "Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat." It’s terrific. And for once music, the dancing, and CGI all come together to create a moment of only-possible-in-the-movies magic.
It has always been my favorite song from the show anyway, its earworm rhymes and peppy rhythms reminding me of a children's chant, but for my taste, it’s the only musical sequence to strike a tone of playfulness and fantasy that is thoroughly exhilarating. Helping out in no small part is the fact that it's a tap number, so a measurable element of weight factors into it (the magic of dance has always been the dancer's triumph over gravity. The overuse of special effects and CGI in movies always places dancers in a zero-gravity limbo rendering it unimpressive). 
Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat
Secondly, it helps to an immeasurable degree that Skimble has pants on. Outfitted with tap shoes, suspender britches, and conductor’s whistle; when his cap is on, The Railway Cat looks less like an anthropomorphic nightmare and more like a shirtless, abundantly hirsute ginger fellow with a handlebar mustache, tattoo sleeves...and a tail.

The1962 Judy Garland-Robert Goulet animated musical Gay Purr-ee
So while I didn’t enjoy Cats: The Musical very much and think the show would have been better served as an animated feature, as both a movie fan and musical theater geek, I also hold the opinion that a lousy screen adaptation of a Broadway musical is still better than no screen adaptation at all. And as was my experience with the much-pilloried 1977 movie version of A Little Night Music, maybe folks who’ve never seen Cats onstage will feel differently about the film than I did.

I don't know if Tom Hooper made the Must-See Film Event of the Year, but I'll tell you this, Tom Hooper’s Cats turned out to be precisely the movie 2020 deserves.
A suitably repurposed ad for the 1969 thriller Eye of the Cat

If you're like me, after seeing Cats: The Movie you'll be ready to kill the first person who ever dares utter the word "Jellicle" in your presence. But for the record, according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jellicle cat is "dear little cat" (as Pollicle Dog is "poor little dog") as misheard by T.S. Eliot when he was a child.
On Friday, May 15, 2020, Andrew Lloyd Webber provided a livestream commentary for the YouTube airing of the 1998 straight-to-video production of Cats featuring the British touring company. Benefitting The Actors Fund and dedicated to the recent death of his cat Mika, the commentary was notable to me for: the constant (hilarious) digs and potshots Webber made at Tom Hooper's film; getting choked-up watching the finale number; and the brief visit by Oddy (pictured), another member of Webber's cat family.
 Tom Hooper can take solace in the fact that finding the proper scale for
humanoid cats has always been a problem. In this 1986 anti-smoking PSA
Andrew Lloyd Webber's felines are as small as mice.

I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat!
Cats is bookended by the image of a cat's face on the right side of the frame peeking out through the clouds over London. At the start of the film the cat is seen winking. At the conclusion, it just stares out in dumbfounded shock. Like the audience.

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020


  1. Hey, Ken,

    It sure looks like I had better stick with my tape of the 1998 Cats film! Although I might eventually watch this recent version out of sheer fascination. I rarely see musicals on stage, so my appreciation of them comes mainly from their cast albums - I didn't get interested in Lloyd Webber's shows until around 1990; The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, even Aspects of Love get more spins in my house than Cats. (Skimbleshanks is definitely one of the more delightful numbers, so I'm not surprised that this 2019 movie did not completely defeat it!)

    I think you're the only reviewer to find a link between the Cats and Hair movies. Love the shout-out to John Savage, the golden boy of 1979 American cinema.

    1. Hi Mark! Sometimes when a movie is VERY odd, as this one most definitely is, there is often the chance that the film speaks entirely differently to different people. Once you’ve already seen a great deal of how strange the creatures…I mean, cats…look, and once you’ve read enough eviscerations of the film as terrible and a travesty, there stands a very good chance your meager expectations (expecting an absolute disaster) will yield a movie that’s nowhere near as bad as you anticipated. So there stands an outside chance you MIGHT like it. I think it’s worth a look just to make up your own mind.
      Outside of that, it’s also worthwhile as a study to see just how bizarre a so-called mainstream movie can be. Someone I know online once observed a similar quality about ‘50s/’60s musicals: Never were they more perverse or lunatic then when they sought to be “something for everyone” entertainments.

      When you say you discovered Webber’s musicals through the cast albums…were you then pleased with the film adaptations of the shows you named? My theory is that actually seeing these shows onstage is simultaneously the film version’s biggest friend (presold audience) and worst enemy (expectations the novice won’t have).
      Well, thank you very much for commenting. And yes, John Savage in the late ‘70s…definitely riding a fame wave!

    2. I've been re-reading Ethan Mordden's book, "The Hollywood Musical," which is really eye-opening regarding the crazy qualities of movie musicals, especially when a way has to be found to turn a stage work into a cinematic piece that has to appeal to a broader base than a Broadway audience.

      The only Lloyd Webber musical I've seen live is The Phantom of the Opera, which I saw at some point between hearing the OC and seeing the 2004 film version. I find the movies of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats (1998 version), and Phantom all satisfying. Surprisingly, aside from the new Cats and maybe some taped-in-theater versions, there are no other ALW film adaptations. Although I've never gotten into the Starlight Express score, a movie of that might be quite spectacular. I would also like to see films of Sunset Boulevard and Aspects of Love.

      The Phantom sequel of 2010, Love Never Dies, has some lovely music (especially the title song), but is saddled with a mind-numbing dumb story. I see now Lloyd Webber is preparing a new Cinderella stage musical for this autumn. One wonders what new ideas he can bring to it - and how he'll measure up to Rodgers & Hammerstein's version. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to ramble on about musicals!

  2. I've not seen the play (but I did see a video recording of the play that came out in the 90s) but listened to the music a great deal back in the day. I always liked the songs particularly Mr. Mistoffeles, Macavity the Mystery Cat, and even Memory (I think it's a great song that's simply been overplayed, oversung and overused). I bought T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Cats because of the musical and it's quite a translation from his folksy set of poems to the Broadway spectacle that was "Cats." I looked for the "Memory" poem but it wasn't there but found the inspiration for the song later in another poem by Eliot (Rhapsody on on Windy Night). At least I think it is. As for seeing the recent movie? Nope, nope, nope. It just looked too weird. I don't think you can cinematize Cats. It's one of those productions that can only work (I think) on the stage where you can suspend belief in a very particular way. We EXPECT things (like cats) to NOT be represented literally given the stage's limitations. On the movie screen, we expect more verisimilitude. I don't think you can merge those two expectations very easily.

    1. You make a good point about how differently the eye and mind approach movies vs live theater. A point that surely must plague everyone who sees this with the knowledge it cost nearly 100 million to make, and even more to promote. It’s staggering to me to think that so much money, effort, energy, and talent was thrown into a production that appears never to have had the equivalent of a test survey screening of the digital fur technology to see how people reacted to it.
      Surely SOMEONE at some must have asked “Does any of this look creepy or unsettling to you?”
      But maybe not.
      Although I think this is my first time hearing about the Eliot poem from which “Memory” spring, like you, I had a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and had a reaction not dissimilar to yours. It has a small charm that I’m impressed Webber was able to amplify to a stage phenomenon, but I wish Hooper and company had perhaps approached the film in a way that was less in reverence of the grand scale of the stage show and more in n attempt to do service to both Webber’s vision and Eliot’s intent.
      Even though you say you won’t see the film, is there any interest at all in listening to it? Or perhaps after listening to it so much when you were younger, you’ve hit a wall.
      Appreciate your thoughtful comments, Ron. Thanks for reading!

    2. Good point. I really should give it at least a listen. Oh, and by the way, how did I miss the caption on that last photo!? I just saw it now and I'm still chuckling....

  3. Didn't see it, but me and others in my autism group have been making jokes about it for months now. (Our fearless leader saw it on opening day, because he's that much of a masochist, and considered it the worst movie he ever saw.)

    I should note that until now, they had been trying to get a movie off the ground since the early '90s, when Steven Spielberg was going to produce an animated version. Speaking as someone who's unfamiliar with the original show, I could imagine it working in that format. (Incidentally, when I saw the first trailer, I quipped on Twitter that the only thing crazier would be if someone made a movie of Starlight Express. Hell, I'd see it.)

    And finally, for your reading pleasure, an interview with a famous comic book artist/writer who saw Cats while on 'shrooms:

    Great write-up as always, Ken.

    1. Hi Joel
      "Starlight Express"! I love the score to that show, but have never seen a stage production of it. Along with Liza Minnelli's "The Rink"(1984) I still marvel that there was a time when roller skating was a "thing" in Broadway musicals (Yay for "Xanadu on Broadway"!).
      Although we have Transformers technology now, the idea of Steven Spielberg making a singing and dancing trains musical is beyond comprehension.

      You mentioned Spielberg's plans to make an animated CATS--somewhere nline is a website devoted to all things CATS related, and it features many of the production sketches and character designs for the shelved Spielberg version. It looked surprisingly good!
      Thanks for the link to the interview with the fellow who saw CATS in an altered state. An online friend saw CATS a few days after it opened, but she went the edible route. She loved the film and gave it a glowing review. Perhaps I shouldn't have listened...
      Thank you very much for reading this and taking the time to comment, Joel.

  4. Dear Ken: Hi!

    I don't think I could watch this one. Apart from the abundant creepiness factor as reflected in the stills you feature above, I'm just not that much of a fan of the original show. I saw it on its original tour back in the mid-80s and came away unimpressed. Part of the problem was me expecting the show to be a story musical; when Grizabella comes on stage and then no more than two minutes later (perhaps my memory is faulty there) launches into a passionate song about her hopes and dreams, I wasn't blown away. Instead I was thinking, "Who IS this person?" But part of the problem also was that I'm not a big fan of Webber's music. "Phantom" is the only show of his I saw on Broadway and I found the song "Music of the Night" to be a big snooze. (I do have a sneaking fondness, though, for "All I Ask of You.")

    But as always, I loved reading your review, especially the background you provide of your first trip to NYC and seeing your first Broadway shows. I made my first trip to New York later that same year of 1983 (it was my high school graduation present) and saw two shows, "My One and Only" with Tommy Tune and Twiggy, and a revival of the 1936 Rodgers and Hart show "On Your Toes." Both dance-filled shows were magical for me, and if I didn't have zero dance talent myself, I surely would have been inspired by them to consider a dance career.

    (I have to add, though, being a timid soul at the time, I was slightly terrified about walking around New York City, especially after dark. Back in the 1970s and 80s, everyone knew New York was the mugging capital of the world--after all, weren't even Lois Lane and Clark Kent mugged while just walking around on their lunch hour?)

    I also have to add that your 25 year-old self looks absolutely adorable in your Cats t-shirt! :)

    Taking a step back from "Cats" specifically, I do have to wonder about the future (if any) of the screen musical. Do we have writers, directors, choreographers etc. who can make that very tricky--especially for modern times--genre work? I honestly don't know.

    1. ditto on your picture Ken, lookin' good.

    2. Dave!
      I got such a good laugh with your reaction to Grizabella’s big moment! It’s so true, and hits so close to what I’ve always felt about how little time the show devotes to her, yet expects us to be invested in her song (one actress who toured as Grizabela said she got in a lot of knitting done each night). Clearly, millions of people were touched, as I’m sure I was the first time ‘round, but with every revisit it seems more out of left field.

      A critic in writing about the film version made the observation that an opportunity was missed in creating such a passive character as Victoria as the film’s center, and that they should have restructured the film version so that Grizabella’s journey is the narrative thread. I think that’s pretty sharp. A way to give the flm the emotional stakes I don’t think it has by knowing so little about Grizabella.

      It's fascinating that you made your first trip to NYC that same year. I’m so impressed you got to see Twiggy in a musical! Love the score to that show, and I think Tony Walton did the design, so it must have been something. Any you’re right about how dangerous NYC was at the time.
      Although aspects of it certainly scared me too, I’m glad I got to ride in one of those monumentally filthy and graffitied subway trains, and see the Times Square area with all those grindhouse movie theaters (I never knew how people felt comfortable going to some of those older sleaze theaters, I would be imaging the whole time a terrified a rat would run over my feet!) Mercifully, I returned from my trip without any “True Crime” anecdotes to share.

      I love the question you pose about film musicals. I remember how, prior to the release of the film version of CHICAGO, there was all this talk about how the musical was dead outside of Disney animation (thinking back to that adaptation of EVITA that was so afraid to claim itself as a musical, it filled itself with marches). Then they started churning them out (HAIRSPRAY, DREAMGIRLS, NINE ) all glitzy and forgettable.

      CATS lost an astronomical amount of money. I can’t imagine that’s not going to impact how quickly they greenlight another musical.

      Thanks for your fabulously fun comments. Not the lease being the kind word about that 25-year-old-me, i don’t know that i could ever look that excited about anything ever again! Great hearing from you Dave!

    3. And a big hug to you, Loulou. My younger, very insecure self thanks you!

    4. That opinion thirded. You were beyond adorbz--I literally went AWWW! when I embiggened the photo! ��

      And thanks, btw, for your as-always-excellent review, although I think this is the first time that you've ever convinced me NOT to watch a movie. I've been on the fence about it, but you've persuaded me that I can give Cats a miss. Much gratitude for having saved me 1 hour and 50 minutes I would have undoubtedly wanted back. ❤

    5. Hello, Lili
      Thank YOU, darlin'! And yes, it's sort of against type for me to write about a film I wasn't particularly crazy about, but since my tastes and opinions are all so personal, I always assume that no one can take my posts for either recommendations or warning, just Ken's movie journal.
      Still, I can't honestly say that 1 hour and 50 minutes of your life is worth the gamble! Thank you for the compliment and for commenting. Lovely to hear from you again!

  5. Thanks for your writeup of this already infamous disaster, Ken. On top of what I had already read about the film, between your experience and Rob Sheridan's hilariously horrific trip to the theater (via Joel's link), this Cat(s) has unfortunately run out of lives. Everything just sounds beyond misguided in the worst way, and if it does manage to gain a midnight/cult following it will be fairly small. It's pleasing that even the Taylor Swift fans mostly stayed away, as I feared they would try to make the film a hit just because of her participation.
    Congrats on finding even small moments to savor in this (and thanks for suffering through it a second time for us).

    1. Hello, Pete
      It does seem as though I took a hit for the team by watching CATS so you wouldn’t have to, but my self-inflicted pain was entirely self-centered. I had made my mind up that I wasn't going to see CATS, but COVID hit, I was in quarantine, Los Angeles was going through a week of dark, grey skies and buckets of rain, and a lunatic in the White House was offering no leadership...I was so stressed I sought out a musical to cheer me up.
      So many of my favorite films have been movies the critics hated, so I thought I’d take a chance on CATS. Such a bad idea, as it only heightened my anxiety, but at least I can say I saw it.

      I guess we'll never know if CATS had the stuff to become a Midnight Movie sensation (when will people feel comfortable going to theaters again?), and like you, I’m surprised the Taylor Swift fans didn’t turn out for it in bigger numbers, but it's a movie ripe for the MST3K/RiffTrax treatment. Indeed, I think a running commentary of barbs and comic asides is perhaps the only way to make the film watchable.
      If the current revisionist movement to reframe SHOWGIRLS as something other than an enjoyable fiasco is any indication, perhaps 20 years from now some deluded film buff will seek to set themselves apart from the masses and claim CATS as being ahead of its time and a visionary work of genius. For now, let's just keep a bell tied around the neck of this CATS and run when you hear it coming.
      Thanks for reading my essay and commenting, Pete!

    2. Your line about tying a bell around its neck really gave me a good laugh. Thanks for that and the response as always, Ken.

  6. Replies
    1. Ha! *blushing* Although I suspect this is my partner in Google 25-year-old self thanks you!

  7. Hi Ken,

    It's been a while since I commented, but this the first time in a while our viewings have synced up. Another excellent essay. I saw Cats with my mother on Christmas Day. When I said what movie we wanted to see the cashier asked, “Are you sure?” We were the only people in the theater, which made a weird movie even more surreal. I can’t say I actually enjoyed the movie but it was fascinating to see. I think your comment that Cats is a dancer’s show explains why the movie was such a misfire and your thoughts about how it went wrong mirror my own. Dancing is supposed to look effortless but we all know it takes effort. That is part of the magic. The way the dancers in this looked unmoored from their surroundings made it hard to tell what was dancing and what was digital manipulation. This movie was such a disaster in its conception, I wonder if there is a way it could have been done well. The cartoon version would have completely erased the dancing, which would defeat the whole purpose of filming it in the first place. I wonder if it would have worked if they did a variation of the movie version of Jesus Chist Superstar, with the framing device of actors showing up and getting into their roles? If they played up the show’s theatrical roots, restored the physicality and had dancers in costumes and not pixels, they could have eased the audience into the unreality of it all. The more I think about it, the more I marvel at the way Tom Hooper managed to make a bad choice at nearly every level. (The Snot! The Cockroaches! The Fur Removal! The Human Noses!) That takes the kind of skill that only comes once in a generation.


    P.S. That Noel Coward quote about cheap music is one of my favorites. It reminds me of a cautionary article I read years ago from an older guy warning younger generations to be wary of the songs they made popular. “Little did our generation know,” he said, “that when we made Wooly Bully into a hit, we would be condemned to listen to it for the rest of our lives.”

    1. Hi Michael - Wow, you mean just fave days after its December 20th release date CATS was playing to an empty theater? And I love what the cashier said! Talk about a harbinger of doom.
      At least you saw it on a big screen. As you say, it's kind of fascinating to watch something in which virtually every single idea associated with its creation is a HUGE miscalculation. Had he the budget of Ed Wood, Hooper would be fine; with a budget like he had with CATS, the weirdness of this film seems almost obscene.

      I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the film and learning that even on aig screen with booming sound, the film still struck you as a misfire. Interesting, too, your speculations on what ways (if any) CATS could be brought to the screen. Especially the notion of sticking to its theatrical roots, but then I guess thy were trying to up the ante on that 90s DVD version.
      After I took a look at the illustrations for the OLd Possum's book, it solidified in my mind the possibility that V+CATS might have worked as an animated film. A departure from it being a dance show might have been just the thing for it to separate from comparisons with the stage show. When I think of how dance, music, and the expressiveness of faces has been handled in so many recent animated features, removing the human beings from CATS would be a good way to get back to the charming animal ideas in the book and reflected in the charming and comical illustrations.
      I guess time will tell if lovers of the odd and off-beat resuscitate CATS as some kind of cult favorite, but I can't envision it. The film is too bizarre, by half.
      Thank you for adding to the comments here, Michael. It's rare for me to write about so recent a film so it's a pleasure if that played a factor in your stopping by to share your own CATS encounter with us. Cheers!

      Oh, and that final paragraph about the popular music is great and lamentably ture (as my mind goes to "Muskrat Love" -what were record buyers thinking? )

  8. Ken its James your "Hot Rods to Hell " obsessed fan. I see how happy young Ken was with CATS so how about an image of today Ken and your reaction to the today CATS. Sort of a then and now. Ken I am also obsessed with the "1979 Disco Dancing Championships" Have you ever watched it? Contestant #4 is fab and #4, Sis Pedersen is so sexy. Do you know her? She is associated or something like that with the "International Dance Academy" Just wondering. Sorry I have no brilliant comments on CATS as I am staying clear of it. I did however enjoy your observations. I love "Muskrat Love"! How would you know the sounds muskrats make when "doing it"without that song.

    1. Hi James
      I got your note citing the error of #7 contestant Sis Pederson. And since you asked, I HAVE seen this amazing Euro competition on YouTube, although I can't recall who won. But it is a real time capsule and some of the dancers are very good. I looked over the names and I don't know a soul. I don't even know if they had one contestant from the US.
      I like your suggestion of about my posting a contemporary reaction to CATS 2019, but I think I'm going to just preserve my '80s memories and pretend none of this actually happened. A dream, like that DYNASTY season.
      You're smart to have spared yourself.
      Good to hear from you again, James. Thanks for commenting.
      And I respect your pride in your appreciation of "Muskrat Love"...proving again that there is no need for pleasures to be guilty pleasures.