BWW Album Review: CATS Doesn't Make Many Good New Memories
If we're being honest, we can probably count on one hand the number of viewers who went to see Tom Hooper's ill-advised movie version of Cats for the music. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music has never really been the appeal of Cats; it's always been the visuals and the brand more than anything that allowed it to become an iconic piece of theatre pop culture. As you probably expect, the soundtrack for the movie does very little new, but dutifully recreates the score with a talented all-star cast.
In case you'd forgotten how very '80s the score is, "Jellicle Songs for Jellice Cats" will remind you immediately. Packed with synth and the nonsensical lyrics you remember, it's a faithful recreation of the Broadway version, with one additional twist: playing Where's Waldo with how many of the celebrity voices you can notice on the first listen through. From there, like the stage show, it essentially becomes a revue, with each star getting their turn in the spotlight. Occasionally, they're introduced by Munkustrap, played by Robbie Fairchild with admirable dedication and seriousness.
The main cast is a mixed bag, with some major miscasts along the way. Rebel Wilson's typical style of comedy is something of a mismatch for Jennyanydots and "The Old Gumbie Cat." She struggles with the high notes and the jazzy style, instead leaning heavily into the comedic aspects, which probably play much better on screen than they do as an audio-only experience. Jason Derulo's "Rum Tum Tugger" is, at least, appropriately playful for the "bad boy" of the Cats characters. It's a fun, '80s-rock tinged number, and Derulo nails the fast-talking lyrics and patter. Similarly, James Corden nails the old vaudevillian style of "Bustopher Jones." And, as you might expect, Sir Ian McKellen is excellent as "Gus the Theatre Cat." Even without any visuals, you can almost hear the twinkle in his eye as he alternates between the joyful memories and the bittersweet melancholy.
Taylor Swift's performance on "Macavity" is, perhaps surprisingly, quite good. For those who are used to just hearing her belt out pop hits, they'll be surprised by how dedicated she is to the almost-sultry vibe of this song. She's come a long way from the days when theater fans were in an uproar over the idea of her playing Eponine in Les Miserables. Of course, the highlight of the album has to be Jennifer Hudson's version of the signature song "Memory." The Oscar winner goes from the delicate, devastating mourning of the early verses to a full-voiced belt that reminds us just how lovely this song can be, despite decades of overuse.
As in the original stage show, there are a few songs that are on the more forgettable side "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer" is one of these, a number that's more meant to be danced than sung. Fairchild's "Old Deuteronomy" is in this category too - it's one of the rare numbers that actually includes some plot-related exposition, but it's decidedly not showy. He also has the misfortune of having to be on the silly and upbeat but dance-heavy "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat." After a while, it starts to get exhausting to listen to the same pattern of a character getting introduced, dancing, and talking about themselves, but that's a complaint about the original show, not something unique to the movie.
There's one wholly new song in the movie: "Beautiful Ghosts," co-written by Swift and Lloyd Webber. It's surprisingly good, a haunting, melancholic song that serves as a counterpoint of sorts to "Memory;" it suggests that Victoria (played by Francesca Hayward) is something of a Grizabella in the making, giving the movie an all-too-rare interesting character beat. Swift sings an alternate, end-credits version of the song as well, and it's equally successful, giving her a chance to show off a different vocal style than her usual pop-country sound. It's a rare interesting and contemporary moment on a soundtrack that is largely predictable and pretty dated - but, after all, it's Cats.