Monae will perform two original songs for the film, led by Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux. Monae’s artist collective Wondaland is also “reinventing” a track from the original 1955 animated movie, individuals close to the project said.
That would be “The Siamese Cat Song,” originally recorded by Peggy Lee for the feline duo Si and Am in the animated version. Those characters and their famous refrain — “We are Siamese if you please / We are Siamese if you don’t please” — have long been considered a cringe-worthy depiction of Asian culture.
Wondaland contributors Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Roman GianArthur are working on a different take for the pair, who in the new film are not Siamese cats, the insiders added. Walt Disney Studios confirmed Monae’s musical involvement, as did a rep for the singer.
“We’re dealing with Wondaland, her team of incredibly creative writers and producers that she works with. So our director has engaged with her in terms of what the storytelling [of] the song needs to be,” Kaylin Frank, a vice president in Creative Music and Soundtracks at Disney, said at the recent MUSEXPO Creative Summit in Burbank, Calif.
Frank reassured the conference that while the film is set in 1910 and has a blues-ragtime vibe, Monae’s personal sound will be represented. There’s also a possibility Wondaland will do a pass on the film’s signature song “He’s A Tramp,” another individual added.
In a 2013 analysis of the cat song at culture blog Flavorwire, one author found the depiction of Si and Am a result of a post WWII anxiety America had about the foreign “other,” saying they came to represent a duplicitous and seductive team with shady motives.
“They have no individuality; their innocent blue eyes bend into a sinister glare as they cave at the slant. They are jaundiced and sly; sick and feral; domesticated, though nevertheless propelled by their mischievous, impish nature to deceive and intimidate,” wrote author Marcus Hunter, who called them a “colonist nightmare.”
A retooling of the cat song would not be the first upgrade Disney has given to an animated classic seeing live-action translation. Who among us will soon forget the noise around the “exclusively gay” moment director Bill Condon added to Emma Watson’s “Beauty and the Beast” — in service of Josh Gad’s character Le Fou, who in that original animation pined for the beefy alpha male Gaston with no clear motivation.
Upcoming live-action takes like “Aladdin” and “Mulan” will also accurately represent the racial makeup of their respective characters.
The OTT service Disney Plus is expected to launch in mid-November, and “Lady” soon after.