Tara Isabella Burton on Why ‘Cats’ is a Musical for Our Time

James Corden, center, as Bustopher Jones in the new film “Cats.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Tara Isabella Burton has written on religion, culture, and place for The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, The Economist’s 1843, Aeon, The BBC, The Atlantic, Salon, The New Statesman, The Telegraph, as well as . for Vox.com, where she was a staff religion reporter. Her fiction has appeared in ​Granta, Volume 1 Brooklyn, The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, Tor.com, PANK, and more. ​She received a doctorate in theology from Trinity College, Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar, in 2017. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


Last night I saw “Cats.” Sober.

Few movies — wait, few media properties — have been as thoroughly panned as Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which was in turn inspired by T.S. Eliot’s wildly whimsical “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (and some inexplicable snippets of his “The Four Quartets”).

“I am hard-pressed at the moment to think of many worse movies,” said The Los Angeles Times.

Variety lamented: “This uneven eyesore turns out to be every bit the Jellicle catastrophe the haters anticipated, a half-digested hairball of a movie.”

It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 20%.

It is projected to lose as much as $100 million.

I am here to tell you that they are all wrong. “Cats” is the greatest movie musical — perhaps the greatest movie — of our age.

Or, at least, the most zeitgeist-y movie of our age. As no other film of 2019 has done, “Cats” captures at once the intense spiritual longing of our modern world and its concurrent alienation from established sense and meaning.

If you are having trouble locating the disaffection I’m referring to, here’s a quick refresher: Grimes is having Elon Musk’s baby; Harry and Meghan are “stepping back” from the royal family; Peter Thiel is slowly, inexorably, transforming himself into a vampire; World War III threatens; A reality television star is president. The news of 2020 reads like parody, if any of it were funny.

The earnest shlock and high camp of “Cats” — what else can we call Taylor Swift playing a feline in a pastiche of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic mysticism? — captures our state of dread. It is the coming of the prophecy that the West’s destruction will come not, Tom, with a bang or a whimper but in a computer-generated bath of ironic amusement.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” No one could have foreseen in 1939, when Benjamin penned those sentences, that he was talking about “Cats.”

“Cats” is a story of Eliot’s Jellicle cats, who compete via song and dance, backed by choruses of cockroaches, to be chosen by a fur-wearing Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. They sing about felinity and divinity and their desire to go further up, further in — not simply to be reincarnated but to gain a new life in a newer world.

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Source: Religion News Service