TORONTO — Greg Wells won a Grammy for “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack, and crafted songs with Adele and Katy Perry, but even those wild experiences couldn’t prepare him for the cinematic adaptation of “Cats.”
About five weeks before the film opens in theatres, the Peterborough, Ont.-raised musician is chatting by phone from a London recording studio. He’s on the tail end of the rollercoaster project, still locking in the final versions of some songs.
The music producer was first brought in over the summer to help translate a few favourites from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s enduring feline stage musical for the big screen — and then wound up hired for the entire project. As an added surprise, Taylor Swift asked him to help create her original song “Beautiful Ghosts” that plays over the film’s closing credits.
Wells says he doesn’t get star-struck when he’s working with industry heavyweights, who’ve also included Keith Urban, Celine Dion and OneRepublic.
He’s focused on “serving the song as best as possible,” but admits sometimes it’s hard to ignore when you’re sitting across from somebody as famous as Swift, or holding tapes of “Cats” stars Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba and Judi Dench belting their hearts out. He was especially amused by “Lord of the Rings” actor Ian McKellen.
“I’m mixing Gandolf!” he remembers thinking as he pieced together one of the “Cats” songs.
“I had to put aside the fact that I still consider myself a 14-year-old from Peterborough, and be the 51-year-old guy that sold 125 million albums.”
Not everyone is quite as excited as Wells about the prospects of “Cats.” While he was plugging away in the studio, the world outside the production was gossiping about whether “Cats” would become the avant-garde blockbuster it aspired to be, or land in theatres with an embarrassing thud just before Christmas.
When the movie’s trailer debuted in July, some people were quick to mock the CGI effects, saying the human actors looked ridiculous as two-legged cats. Others grabbed the most meme-worthy moments to circulate among their friends as a joke.
Even Wells says he “wasn’t entirely sure” what to make of concept before he saw a rough cut of “Cats” in its entirety. He suggests a two-minute clip doesn’t do the concept justice.
“A movie like this is based on such a level of fantasy,” he said.
“If you watch a trailer for the musical itself from the ’80s, all those trailers look insane too, and those are people just wearing cat costumes… It’s bizarre. But when you watch the film you’re introduced to this world in a more in-depth way, and it’s much easier to suspend disbelief.”
Wells has embraced successful underdog projects before.
Two years ago, critics demolished the musical “The Greatest Showman, but the film racked up nearly half a billion dollars at the box-office and became the best-selling album in the world in 2018. It moved 3.5 million copies that year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Wells admits he was surprised by how quickly “This is Me” and the film’s other songs became part of the musical canon —before its release, he even feared the film “would get ignored” in cinemas.
With “Cats” he feels there’s a perfect opportunity to disprove the naysayers and leave an indelible mark on musical history again.
“The stakes attached to any artistic project — but especially this one — are potentially huge,” Wells explained.
“Andrew (Lloyd Webber) has said to me he never knows when something’s going to be a hit. You can just never predict how the public is going to react, but the one thing you can control is whether you love it and are proud of it.”
Wells draws on the wisdom of Lloyd Webber often while talking about “Cats.” He considers the impresario his childhood idol, having begged his mother to buy the vinyl record of “Jesus Christ Superstar” after he saw the production as a youngster.
The two were already working together on an upcoming stage version of “Cinderella” when Lloyd Webber proposed they meet to watch a rough cut of “Cats.” He hoped Wells would lend his contemporary musical experience to the unfinished film’s soundtrack.
The project intrigued Wells, particularly because director Tom Hooper used unconventional recording methods. Unlike most movie musicals where the actors mouth the words over a pre-recorded track, Hooper had them sing their vocals live on the set. The emotional intensity of live recordings won him much attention on his Oscar-winning 2012 film “Les Miserables.”
“Cats” was partly recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios with contributions from the London Symphony Orchestra. The score also features instrumental touches from Wells himself playing the drums, pipe organ, bass guitar and Abbey Road’s fabled Mrs. Mills piano that punctuated numerous Beatles recordings, including “Penny Lane” and “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
“I insisted we use it all over the music for ‘Cats,’” he says.
By the time the musical hits theatres Dec. 20, Wells will have turned his focus back to “Cinderella,” though he’s eager to see how audiences respond to the movie.
“It’s a hell of a ride,” he says. “It’s definitely not your normal Hollywood film, at all.”