Given that it contains dozens of digitally smoothed-out crotches, a chorus line of “tiny human-faced cockroaches” (to borrow a suitably nightmarish phrase from my colleague Justin Chang) and the sight of Dame Judi Dench as a cat wearing what appears to be a fur coat — this is basically the same thing as a human wearing a skin coat, right? — I can understand why the music of “Cats” has perhaps been overlooked in all the talk about the busy new big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash Broadway musical.
But “Cats” bears examining as a piece of pop, if only because the show’s signature song, “Memory,” has become an undeniable pop standard — covered countless times by innumerable artists including Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, Susan Boyle and, of course, Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls — in the four decades since this artifact of the early 1980s premiered.
The accumulated weight of all those renditions has had something of a dulling effect on “Memory,” which is performed in the musical by Grizabella, a once-glamorous cat whose fall from grace has her looking back to a time when she “knew what happiness was.” To hear the song’s dreary opening arpeggios now is to reflexively brush off the possibility of encountering something that might move you; the tune, a happily trashy bit of ersatz Puccini, has become a kind of showbiz parody of the emotion it once sought genuinely to embody.
Funny, then, that Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “Memory” is the sole musical number in the new movie that summons real feeling. It’s not that she does anything radical to the song; indeed, it’s that she doesn’t in a film hell-bent on using every trick of technology, choreography and James Corden-ology to get a reaction — any reaction — out of you. Gazing into the camera, her wide face twisted with sorrow, upper lip wet with snot, Hudson simply sings the stuffing out of “Memory” with such intensity that you almost forget she’s wearing a pair of fuzzy cat ears.
With her husky-then-silky vocal tone and her precise navigation of Lloyd Webber’s tricky intervals, Hudson’s performance allows you to re-experience this most over-handled of cultural objects as music — as the pained outpouring of a woman (OK, a cat) for whom even a streetlamp has turned menacing. No wonder director Liesl Tommy hired Hudson to play Aretha Franklin in next year’s “Respect”: In the first trailer for the biopic, playing as we speak before “Cats,” the singer somehow gives the titular soul classic a fresh zing.
Hudson isn’t the only pop star — does that feel like the right thing to call an “American Idol” flameout turned Academy Award winner? — in “Cats,” which largely stays true to Lloyd Webber’s over-the-top orchestra-with-a-guy-on-synth sound. Jason Derulo, clearly jazzed to have been cast in what he takes to be a prestige production, shows up for an aggressively frisky spin through “The Rum Tum Tugger,” while Taylor Swift appears as an actor (in the slinky “Macavity”) and as a songwriter (in the earnest “Beautiful Ghosts,” a new tune sung by the cat named Victoria). They both look to being having a blast, though nothing about their performances made me want to cue up their contributions on the “Cats” soundtrack afterward.
Hudson is doing something different. She’s angling for a spot in the crowded pantheon of remember-ers.