Jan. 1, 2020 was the first and last time I saw the movie “Cats.” Before watching, I already knew it was bad. From what I heard, audiences had been left petrified by immoral displays of human-cat crossbred creations, while critics were referring to the film as a feline hellscape. Apparently, the plot itself couldn’t save its potential designation as a cinematic masterpiece, with its tedious — and at times confusing — storyline. Due to morbid curiosity, I got to experience all of this first-hand in an empty theater (with the exception of two friends). We later managed to develop a conspiracy theory about how having “Cats” as our first movie of 2020 eventually contributed to the curse of the coronavirus pandemic. More research is yet to be done on that.
As someone with very limited knowledge of musical theater, I’m sorry to say that “Cats” was my first and only exposure to the original production by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’m sure it’s great, considering it’s won both the Laurence Olivier and Tony awards for Best Musical. But for the sake of mental reparation, it’ll be a long time before I delve into the world of lyrical lynxes again. So instead of rejuvenating my current image of “Cats,” I thought it’d be better to focus on the good bits of what I gathered from that fateful New Year’s Day. Granted, there’s really only one.
Maybe it was just the result of my brain grasping for redeemable material, as over halfway through the film, my mind had solely processed the following: the main group of cats are called the “Jellicles;” human-cat dancing is the equivalent of a bad trip; Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer are amazing cat names; Judi Dench sacrificed her damehood to play a female cat Jesus; Idris Elba looks surprisingly decent as a cat and a glittery Taylor Swift descends on a swing. I still had no idea what the premise was.
But all that didn’t matter once Jennifer Hudson chose to carry the immense weight of failed furballs and fever dream sequences on her back. Her character, Grizabella, is old and disheveled, her scruffy appearance the outcome of unkind years following a youthful period of glamour. Despite yearning for acceptance, the Jellicles ostracize her, leaving her to live a lonely life. She’s prompted to sing in front of Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), whose compassionate expression after hearing Hudson’s golden pipes was the epitome of my reaction.
Listening to Hudson belt out her sorrows in “Memory,” a song about reminiscence and renewal, was truly the break I needed, being the least nightmarish aspect of the entire film. Her performance is poignant and passionate, accompanied by an instrumental climax I could listen to for nine lifetimes. The emotion, the orchestral crescendo into Hudson’s high melodic trill and the astonished faces of the Jellicles at the end are what make this rendition the best part of the soundtrack (yet another failed feature of the movie adaptation). However, whether the performance alone is enough to classify the first hour and a half as worthwhile remains questionable. If the entire film was just Hudson singing “Memory,” then perhaps.
“Cats” finally meets its end by electing Grizabella as the “Jellicle Choice.” She ascends in a hot air balloon, bound to enter some sort of cat heaven that I wasn’t even aware of because I’m pretty sure I blacked out in the middle (“Memory” caused me to respawn). As strange and regrettable as the experience was, I can’t help but agree with the ending. It’s an exact representation of how I feel toward the film: Grizabella’s performance makes her the only one to deserve escaping the Jellicles, who are likely to continue their infernal businesses of human-cat song and dance numbers for the rest of time.
My friends and I concluded our movie night blasting “Memory” in the car on our way back home. The lyrics essentially summed up how we felt exiting the theater: “I can smile at the old days / I was beautiful then / I remember / The time I knew what happiness was / Let the memory / Live again.” Life was better before seeing “Cats.” But “Memory” makes it worth living.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of @CatsMusical on Twitter.