The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Year of Cats

This year might’ve been the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, but for myself, it was certainly the year of the cat. Because of the quarantine, I’ve spent more time with my own kitties than ever, which has been both a blessing and full of challenges to which I’m sure anyone with senior pets or working from home can with attention-seeking furballs can relate. Despite this, I seemingly will never have my fill of the creatures, because last month’s ridiculously fun drive-in screening of Tom Hooper’s nuts adaptation of Cats bumped the film up into the winner’s circle for my most watched movie of 2020. I’m not the least bit surprised.

You see, Cats 2019 kicked off my year, being one of only two films I saw in a theater other than The Frida. It became the soundtrack of my bustling commute days for everything from late-night food deliveries and afternoon freeway jams. Though the superior 1998 film soundtrack isn’t available on Spotify, the majority of the original Broadway tracks made it into my most listened to songs of 2020. There are far more listens that didn’t even register, as the ultimate Scottish iteration of Skimbleshanks could only be found on YouTube played non-stop for weeks in what is indisputably (and unsurprisingly) my most listened to song of the year. It filled my days with joy, especially during quarantine when I needed the pep-boost and sunshine offered by the orange tabby cat whose passions arise from something as quaint as “working” on a train to keep the crew and conductors company. Funnily enough, it’s also connected to one of my other loves, as the most huggable version of Old Deuteronomy is performed by Ken Page, a.k.a. Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The early months of 2020 feel like eons ago, yet simultaneously like it was just yesterday rather than a year’s past, even more so looking back and remembering that those first few days of January, I hadn’t thought much of the “Cats” musical at all. Though I hadn’t thought about “Cats” too much before that infamous trailer dropped threatening its Universal arrival during the Christmas season way back when it was far from my first experience with the Andrew Lloyd Webber property. I’d actually had the fortune of seeing a local stage production in person way back in 2012 and found it enchanting as a display of music and dance to be felt and not completely understood at first glance. I do feel a bit sorry for the folks whose first encounter with the musical was the 2019 studio abomination.

Despite enjoying that initial experience enough to watch the 1998 filmed version of the musical and declaring my next cat would be named Rum Tum Tugger or Mr. Mistofalees, I continued to endure an overall Cats-free life aside from the occasional soundtrack listen or YouTube rounds. I knew the new film would be a trip, so I was actually very excited to see Cats 2019 with my bestie for a good laugh and to make fun; unfortunately, our theater wasn’t completely empty, as a whopping three other old folks were there to seemingly watch the film unironically. I think one of them left the theater halfway through. But neither my friend nor myself were prepared for what the experience would do to me in the coming weeks; with the bad taste left in my mouth, I returned to the 1998 film and soundtrack to re-discover what I knew I’d loved about the source material and came back as a complete fanatic. It was non-stop Cats music in the weeks that followed, and seemingly never ceased.

Thanks to The Frida and Tom Hooper, Valentine’s Day 2020 was the most memorable February 14th I’ve ever had– and I spent it dressed as a cat, belting out Broadway classics and laughing with the crowd until I was dizzy. Leave it to The Frida to propose a “Valentine’s-Spay” benefit event for a local cat rescue to give the people what they’d craved for months: the opportunity to witness Cats 2019 and laugh and scream without reservations! Any event that has a line out the door past showtime tells you it’s going to be absolutely outrageous.

The lobby that night was filled with Frida staff, cat ears, and the motion picture soundtrack playing as incoming guests bought booze and were gifted posters of Mr. Mistoffelees for the Segerstrom production (mine is currently gracing my wall). Hilariously, there were folks in line for the other screening of the night as well, and people attending for both Cats and the following screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the group behind me curiously asked what the heck was going on. This would be a recurring sentiment throughout the night, especially from those in the theater who actually came to watch Cats.

There were two types of audience members there that night: “Cats” stans who may or may not have seen the Universal film before, and unsuspecting Cats newbies. The stans were outspoken, leading the sing-alongs to the numbers while the folks who knew nothing of Cats beyond its existence likely left the theater that night in a stupor.

Once the first creepy carnivalesque notes began, it popped off. Already in disbelief, the uncanny CG humanoids creeping in and out of the shadows drew screams of horror which only grew as the uncanny figures kept being introduced and ominous lyrics continued, each seemingly worse than last. Having had the song stuck in my head nonstop for a month, my face already hurt from smiling by the time the chorus of “Jellicle Cats” hit and folks began clapping along. Meanwhile, the couple to my right was stunned silent, their jaws literally dropped as they tried to take in everything in front of them. It was hilarious and not a unique reaction in the theater; I asked if they were okay. They informed me that they’d never seen or heard Cats before, and I informed them that it was going to be a hell of a ride, so they’d better strap in.

Anyone who’s been exposed to the real thing can see that Tom Hooper’s Cats is even more of a bizarre disaster through a first impression. I’ve never had such a blast making fun of the horribly misguided attempts of major studios, actors, and musicians with no self-awareness to rake in cash and Academy Awards. There’s nothing quite like saying “you’re welcome T.S. Eliot” out loud and having the crowd laugh at the guy’s expense, or being reminded that both Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellan were both in Hamlet as the knight himself laps at a bowl of milk. It was therapeutic, commenting on how somehow they managed to make even the designs of the cats racist and taking the two good-natured and admired chubby cats and turning them into fat-phobic failed attempts at humor.

While the movie itself manages to disappoint by getting the music wrong along with everything else, ruining what was a joyful and triumphant finale into a fizzling nothing, it became fun again with a crowd. Everyone cheered Mr. Mistoffelees on like he was Tinkerbell; others kept yelling “where’s Rum Tum Tugger?!” and yelling “HE’S GAY, TOM” at the shoe-horned hetero romance forced upon a character who literally lit up and manifested rainbows. By the end, a whole row of what had to be theater kids stood in the front left row and started doing a kick-line, and other improvised choreography followed among the rest of us. Literally, everyone in the theater lost their minds when Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat appeared for his number, because whether a longtime fan or casual moviegoer, Skimble is the part of Cats 2019 that everyone agrees was unironically awesome. I screamed way too loud, but I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for the best character and song in any version of the show.

Pretty much everyone was astonished at the choice to have snot dripping from Jennifer Husdon’s song during what was meant to be her Oscar-moment, and many could relate to one moviegoer’s “about two hours ago” response to “Memory” asking if we remembered a time when happiness was. True solidarity shined as the vocal musical fans yelled at the screen when their favorite character appeared: “look how they massacred my boy!”

Before The Frida Cinema elected to shut down for everyone’s safety, another semi-regular screening of Cats was planned to make the rounds, and I was eagerly awaiting the chance to see it with others once again. I got to thinking, “what items or lines can be used to make this a real midnight movie experience”? It was the potential to create new traditions, which is an opportunity rarely available– I’d already started looking for a train whistle and considering what would be a good alternative to glitter that could be thrown. Although I wouldn’t have ever guessed a drive-through screening to be the follow-up this winter season, it was a delight in a different way.

Even through closed car windows, laughing fits and screams could be heard throughout the experience, and even a few clap-alongs from the folks in the bed of their trucks despite the cold December air. You could tell the majority of audience members were true fans much the same as before, cracking up at demands for “Mr. Mistofalee’s boyfriend”. Headlights and honks replaced cheers, though there were plenty of those as well in the form of hands waving out the windows. I made sure to take advantage of what’s definitely better than a train whistle and honked for Skimble, who I’m very pleased to share once again got the biggest reception and drove ‘em wild. 

Perhaps, like the very poems which created the cast of Cats, there’s some poetry to be found in ending 2020 with Cats as well. Since the actual movie didn’t understand a single thing about what makes “Cats” work as a musical and what people genuinely love about it, it’s only natural for the public to take back what both T.S. Eliot would burst into flames at the sight of even more than before, and Universal wishes they could make everyone forget. Here’s hoping that every year from now on we can have a Jellicle Ball to add a bit of feline magic to the holidays.