The many lives and allure of big-screen ‘Cats,’ the hairball Hollywood coughed up into a cult
A few weeks back I wrote about the second life (of nine?) for the failed film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical “Cats” taking form at the Somerville Theatre. Turns out the film’s reincarnation as an “audience participation” cult – come in costume, drink alcoholic beverages and shout at the screen – has more claws than the studio’s initial Christmas release: Despite its Oscar ambitions, critics tanked it, and hardly anyone filled the theater. (Opening opposite a hotly anticipated “The Rise of Skywalker” probably wasn’t the wisest choice.) To date the film has made barely more than half its nearly $100 million budget and, because of massive digitalization gaffes, had to be reedited and rereleased by Universal two weeks in. As a regular seven-days-a-week run became just slots on the weekend, though, it’s those late-night Friday and Saturday showings that have sold out. To check out just the freaky furball fun and gauge the cinematic awfulness of the talent-laden miscue (it does have Oscar winners galore), I swung by the Somerville Theatre on Friday.
It was a robust (two-thirds full) and raucous crew (mostly millennials with a boomer here and there), but I was slightly disappointed no audience members were in costume – just the feline-fashioned hosts, Usher Cat and Popcorn Tickets (theater staffers, adding a twist to the phenom) who had a few rules for the audience to follow. “Rule No. 1,” growled Usher Cat, “Don’t be a jerk or a dog.” Another stipulation asked audience members to “take the kitty litter home and not throw any projectiles at the screen,” and lastly, “Cheer for milk!” (when you see it). There were a few rounds of trivia, including the naming of cats in the films “Alien” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Usher Cat made an oblique reference to “catnip edibles” (part of the conjecture for the the rise of “Cats,” theater manager Ian Judge surmised, is the recent legalization of recreational cannabis). Then it was showtime.
Lights down, audience murmuring high, Usher Cat and Popcorn Tickets danced energetically in the aisles. During the opening scene, when the film’s main feline, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), rips through a sack in an alleyway, Usher Cat barked out “Cat’s out of the bag!” and it was on. Participants hissed loudly when badass tabby Macavity (Idris Elba) appeared onscreen, and there were occasional shouts of “Where’s Taylor?” (Pop diva Taylor Swift appears late in the film in a supporting role.) But mostly it was chatter and chuckles from varying pods of popcorn munchers. “High school’s tough!” someone shouted as alley regulars sized up and intimidated Hayward‘s newbie. Another viewer roared “T. S. Eliot” every time there was a reference to the poet’s work (Webber’s musical is inspired by a series of whimsical poems about cats by Eliot).
The experience overall was an alluring one, mostly from the intoxicating vibe of the communal jeering, but also from finally getting to lap at this tainted milk. First off: the strange, stop-and-go sexualization and digital neutering of characters. There’s a bit of Bob Fosse tang in the air, but also a strange proclivity for crotch shot focus (the anatomical area notoriously digitally smoothed over), especially as Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots does something of a snow angel maneuver; and then there’s the bizarre, prehensile lemur-like tails that play either like pipe cleaners on crack or freaky phallic posturing – I’m not a cat person, but there’s little feline about these flicking digital add-ons. Some other oddity came with the feet. In certain numbers there would be cast members in Nike high-tops, some with nearly bare, human feet and others that were more paw-like. Beyond the curiosity (that killed the cat?) of the spectacle, the thing that held my gaze was the charismatic countenance of Hayward. The French ballerina nearly atoned for each of the various litter boxes she slunk into and may ultimately be the big winner in the debacle’s aftermath.
Bigger questions abound. Like, what’s the future of the film as a midnight flick, and how does it stack up against other cult screenings? It’s no “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” to be certain. That staple was made with ghoulish good fun in mind, and it’s the audience playing with the film, not howling at it. A critical posting on the theater’s Facebook page said, “Stop trying to force this film into cult status. I’m almost convinced at this point this was the studio’s idea to make back some money before people realize this movie is joyless and not the new ‘Showgirls’ or ‘The Room.’” Fair, but neither the 1995 or 2003 film ever made back their budget. Both were critically assailed box office bombs that luckily found brief second lives as a test of one’s fortitude to withstand cinematic dreck. “Cats” is in that sweet spot for me-now and, like those other films, will fade to become a distant reminder of a poorly conceived project briefly embraced for its awfulness. According to the numbers, “Cats” was doing about 30 tickets per screening on opening weekend (6.5 million on 3,380 screens). The screening I attended was more than double that, and according to Judge, Saturday night is the better attended of the two nights, filling the theater to near capacity. “Nothing is quite as good as a delightful disaster,” another visitor to the theater’s Facebook page posted, alongside a bunch of “bummers” from folks who were too slow to buy on sell-out nights. For now “Cats,” the hairball Hollywood coughed up, purrs on.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.