Why Taylor Swift’s ‘Cats’ Is the Death Knell of the Hollywood Musical
Movie musicals used to celebrate the glory of the human body and voice. “Cats” is about “the perversion of the human body through technology,” writes Corbin Smith.
Nothing can prepare you for the faces. You can read a hundred pieces about Cats, director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved-ish musical about cats having a singing competition, and nothing, nothing you read about it could prepare you for the pure, unnerving spectacle of seeing a computer trying to affix human faces to a fucked up, motion-capture cat with human body parts, a tail, and a big human nose, sitting right there in the middle of a cat’s head, sitting on human shoulders, doing dancing routines in a world scaled to cat size.
Sometimes, the faces look… fine? Functional? You’ll see Dame Judi Dench in a close-up, and it’s makeup, like a Star Trek alien, except she’s singing about being a cat instead of engaging in high-level diplomacy with Jean-Luc Picard. But the second anyone starts moving their body, the effect goes haywire. The face always seems a step or two behind the moving body—a human visage temporarily displaced from the twisted cat demon. Especially in a movie theater, watching on a high-definition projector, your attention affixed to the horror show going on in front of you, you can’t help but notice. This movie would work better if, instead of being a 2.35:1 monstrosity getting pumped into your face, it was pan-and-scanned to 4:3, and played on a worn-out tube TV with a reddish tint. The lost detail would subject you to less of these uncanny eyesores that are trying to pass for, um, sexualized cat people.
It’s honestly a miracle a movie this twisted got made, in a world where every movie that costs more than $50 million is engineered for maximum inoffensiveness. It’s such a horrible idea, stem to stern, made even more baffling by the number of times they must have looked over the technology tests and assumed it was going to look better than that, sooner or later.
Now, look: Cats is a bad musical in and of itself, the product of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s diseased mind, the nadir of musical theater as an art form. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot of the movie: There are these cats that live in England called jellicle cats, and they all do musical routines for the head cat, named Old Deuteronomy, and the best one will get to be reincarnated, to try and live its life over. They have horrible names like Rumpleteazer, Rum Tum Tugger, and Skimbleshanks.
It was extraordinarily popular, especially on Broadway, where it ran for nearly 18 years, its initial run closing in 2000. Its enduring popularity was the first sign that this world was headed straight to hell, that the excesses of the West were coming home to roost, and that we would soon be consumed by global warming, violence, and incompetence. Trump plays “Memory,” the showstopper, at his rallies, because New York in the ’80s was the last time he was alive in any real sense.
There are also performances in this movie. Some are not that bad. Ian McKellen plays an old cat actor, that’s kind of fun. Rebel Wilson seems to be having a good time. Jennifer Hudson sings “Memory,” a song I personally dislike (I sang it it middle-school choir), and is a professional at these kinds of things.
But the rest of them. Eugh boy. Idris Elba, Stringer Bell himself, plays Macavity, a villain cat, about as hammily as one possibly could. Taylor Swift, who co-wrote a pretty bad song with Webber for the movie, plays Macavity’s Manson girl, who drugs all the other cats with catnip, in a scene that is Lynchian in its sadistic strangeness. Judi Dench tries a little too hard to make Old Deut dignified—an impossible task considering her drifting face has been affixed to a CGI cat body. Makes you a bit embarrassed for her for even trying. Jason Derulo’s turn as Rum Tug Tugger is deeply depraved. Steven McRae, a ballet dancer in his feature-film debut, plays Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, a train-themed cat.
I cannot possibly express how much I loathe the railway cat.
But the thing that really takes this thing from “bad musical that is receiving a bad adaptation on the big screen” to “holy shit” is the movie’s use of technology. Because, let’s be real, there are a lot of musicals with some very stupid plots out there.
One of the best movie-musicals ever is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, whose plot is legit insane: a backwoods man marries a city girl and takes her home to his house, where he has seven rowdy, red-headed brothers that he neglected to mention before they got married. They all go to the city, meet some nice girls, go back home, get sad, go back to the city, kidnap the girls (they get the idea from Plutarch’s Lives), engineer an avalanche to close the pass and force everyone to spend the winter together, and then they all get married. Truly a stupid idea for a movie.
But the movie has a fundamental understanding of what you go to a musical to see: great singing and wicked-awesome dancing. Dancers fly around beautiful, colorful widescreen compositions, moving in synchronicity with music. The camera and the color all work in service to human bodies in motion. It’s a goofy movie, with the stupidest plot imaginable on paper, but the way it captures more than a dozen people dancing on screen all at once makes it a masterpiece.
There’s a very brief moment in Cats where Wilson, a gifted singer and graceful physical performer toiling away in a role as a tabby with theatrical pretensions (she directs mice and cockroaches in little plays—why yes, they also have deeply upsetting human faces), pirouettes off a drawer onto the floor, in a bit of physical comedy. If they had filmed this bit like they do in Seven Brides, middle distance, so you can see a body executing a perfect pratfall, it would have been graceful, funny, and kind of beautiful.
But… they don’t. They take the movement, clearly performed on a green screen, and compile it with a fake drawer, so that Wilson’s expert fall is digitally enhanced. Instead of seeming like a movement with weight and gravity, it comes across like an animated GIF being moved around with the animation function on a PowerPoint presentation made by a mid-aughts middle schooler.
Most of Gene Kelly’s musicals have a scene where he just dances for a while. It’s usually very compelling. Here is a scene from 1950’s Summer Stock (Gene is a traveling showman, he does a show at Judy Garland’s farm, they fall in love, you get it) that is just him, in a barn, alone, stringing together a weird, fun dance routine with a creak in the floor and a newspaper someone left behind. The creak makes one sound, the newspaper another, and Kelly, utilizing his spectacular athleticism and technical virtuosity, strings these two elements together into a fabulous five minute-long sequence:
Take a second to see how the camera behaves. It just follows Kelly, lets him do the work. His body and what it’s doing is the subject, and it’s deeply compelling. Or, hey, watch this supremely goofy sequence from the 1937 Astaire and Rogers comedy Shall We Dance (two celebs who are annoyed by each other accidentally end up getting married for publicity, fall in love), performed entirely on roller skates:
Once again, the camera is working completely in service to the performers, who are tap dancing on roller skates and adding to the musical architecture of the piece by using the wheels to make clicking and whirring noises.
This week, the venerable movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, in celebration of the dawning of the age of Cats, released a list of the best movie musicals, based on their totally reliable algorithmic system for rating how good every movie is. It should not surprise anyone to hear that most of the highest-ranking movies on this list are from this era of musical filmmaking, where performances are put front and center.
In the 1970s, moviemaking changed. Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire’s neurotic dance choreography wasn’t the kind of thing at the center of a movie anymore. The director—the auteur—was. And the director loves to insert flourishes to let you know someone is directing this.
To say this killed the movie musical is probably an exaggeration, but it certainly made things uncomfortable. The musical had always been about performing, be it dancing or singing, and director-forward filmmaking just isn’t like that. It’s about creating an atmosphere (a milieu), digging into a character’s psyche, probing a performer’s face, as opposed to showcasing their whole body.
Some attempts end up working alright. La La Land doesn’t have the best songs (or singers—Gosling, yeesh), but the filmmaking, even if it’s pretty frenetic, takes its responsibility to put human bodies front and center. Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago succeeds by really centering the performances—they happen in a stagey dreamland—even if there’s a lot of quick, music-video-style cutting employed.
But big studio movies have moved away from even that. They’re not conduits for performance or filmmaking at all anymore. They’re exaltations of technology; of the ability of computers to make anything you can imagine or profit off of happen on screen.
Disney’s ongoing project of cannibalizing their back catalogue is the postmodern musical made manifest, of course. Their musical department is repackaging old animated musicals, not really for any artistic purpose—not a single one of these live-action remakes is widely regarded as superior to its source material—but because technology makes possible with the camera what was once the province of animation, and they seem to sell.
The Aladdin adaptation that came out this summer was a fairly good-faith attempt at integrating newfangled filmmaking technology with director Guy Richie’s apparent appreciation for performance-forward musical filmmaking—big dance sequences play a central role in the film—but it didn’t quite manage to close the gap, in part because, well, they needed a big, blue, live-action Genie, so they heaped a bunch of CGI onto Will Smith, and, even if Smith himself was a delight, it still looks pretty damn alien!
Cats is the apotheosis of this aesthetic car wreck; of trying to square a medium that depends on the exhilaration of pure performance and mush it together with the technology of modern movies. Studios have known for a while that Cats was a marketable property, but they perhaps felt that a movie where people wore messed-up catsuits, as in the play, would freak people out.
But sooner or later, motion-capture technology evolved to the point where one executive at Universal thought, hey, maybe we could do this! And they were so extraordinarily, terribly wrong. There is no substitute for the human body dancing unencumbered on a screen, at least not yet, and the attempt to bridge the gap between cat and man, to make human beings into dancing cats using computers, just transforms the whole thing into a freakish nightmare, when audiences would have just gone along with a movie where Idris Elba wore a catsuit and a fedora because, well, people accept all matter of stupid things from a musical since they like watching people sing and dance.
The trick that great musicals pull off is making that facility a non-factor by taking you out of a “story” and into the glories of the human body and the power of the human voice. The best musicals are about the human body. Hollywood figured this out by the 1930s. Cats, on the other hand, is about the perversion of the human body through technology. This is what makes it such a horror show, but also the perfect movie for our times.