Josie and the Pussycats March 30, 2018
Rachael Leigh Cook
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
"This world is bullshit,” Fiona Apple defiantly told the nation upon receiving an MTV Music Video Award in 1997. Before we could jump to the conclusion that the hazel-eyed 20-year-old was being bratty, perhaps angsty for angst’s sake, though, she elaborated. “You shouldn’t model your life around what you think we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything,” she continued. “Go with yourself.” Apple’s self-loving missives haven’t lost their luster in the decades since they were first uttered, probably because a natural part of the human experience is habitually comparing ourselves to the fashionable those propped up by the media. It's nice to have someone with a platform point it out like that.
I might as well get Apple’s verbal epistles tattooed in gold cursive atop various parts of my body: I love her fumbling way of telling the kiddos at home that they rock; I love her even more. But I wouldn’t dare flash any of that tatted skin when in front of the villains of 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats — then I might get myself into trouble. In the film, which works as a hyperactive music industry satire among other things, individuality isn’t something to take pride in as much as it is something you’d be smart to hide. At any second, it could easily be commodified and utilized to "control the minds" of the trend-obsessed masses. Once it's been noticed that a message is clicking with people it will have to be feverishly capitalized on.
I’d better back up. Around the time Josie and the Pussycats came out in 2001, live-action adaptations of comics and cartoons were in vogue. For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, kids routinely saw A-listers trying their luck starring in wrong-headed adaptations of cartoons and comics alike: the Flintstones weren’t safe, and neither were Inspector Gadget, Casper, or Batman. The trend started fizzling around the time everyone thought they were going to die in a technological apocalypse à la Y2K, but that didn’t stop studio executives from giving the Archie comics’ Josie and the Pussycats a chance.
Until then, the only televised or cinematic attention the fictional band received had come in the form of a short-lived Hanna Barbera-produced Saturday morning cartoon in the early 1970s. Their musical legacy was additionally shaped by a forgotten 1970 LP. For decades, then, the cat-eared lasses were mostly known as bubblegum pop-producing girls who either embarked on Scooby Doo-style misadventures or were flavors to season the antics faced by Archie and Jughead and others. If less ambitious filmmakers were given the task of helming the band's cinematized, 2000s-era live-action comeback, then maybe we’d get more of that. But the task of writing and directing the 2001 version of Josie and the Pussycats
was taken on by the moviemaking duo Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, who until then had only made the 1998 teen movie Can’t Hardly Wait. Rather than go with the conventional, Elfont and Kaplan wanted to use the musical trio at the center of their project as ciphers to place at the front of their own ideas about consumerism and commercialization in the music industry.
The timing was perfect. In 2001, groups like the Spice Girls were losing their cultural dominance as fresh meat like Britney and Christina were stealing the hearts and saved dollars of youths everywhere. So a light flickered on. Given how quickly trends were coming and going in youth popular culture, what if it were imagined that all the witnessed overnight successes weren’t as random as we might have been led to believe? And that the popularity of certain songs and artists had less to do with authentic goodness but rather carefully calculated business transactions?Such questions have always been clunky (though ever-popular in music-industry satires), and especially now feel dated when looking at alongside algorithm-dependent outlets like YouTube and Spotify, which analyze your consumption data to better sell to you. But in Josie and the Pussycats, these proffered ideas are nonetheless provocative, appealingly reflective steps back in the middle of an era marked by overconsumption.
It makes for a cheeky satire, painted strictly in thick brushstrokes that leave little to no room for alternative interpretations for what it could "all mean." At the center of all the ballyhoo is the eponymous Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), who, when we first meet her, is professionally angling. She’s the lead singer of the Pussycats (whom we luckily don’t have to see go through the motions of a ponderous origin story). But while she’s a rollicking stage presence, she and her pals are still very much a small-time band struggling to make it.
In Riverdale, their thumbnail-sized hometown, the group mostly plays to disinterested onlookers in bowling alleys and city streets for no money, desperate to make a good impression. But they’re getting nowhere, despite Josie’s optimism and the spunk of her bandmates, the cool Val (Rosario Dawson) and the featherbrained Melody (“actress” Tara Reid). Then they’re serendipitously spotted by the money-hungry music executive Wyatt (Alan Cumming), who sees stars in these young women well before he’s heard any of their tracks. (The cat ears and the presence of brunette, blonde, and red ‘dos are extra marketable, after all.) He’s desperate for some kind of new big thing: the boy band he’s rigidly controlled and exploited for the last year or so, Du Jour, has mysteriously disappeared.
Before any of the Pussycats can so much as blink twice in protest, they’re thrust into the limelight by Wyatt and co. — a hyper-literal definition of an overnight success. If their rising to the top seems quick, it's because it is. Asks Josie: “Does anyone else think it’s a little strange that all this has happened in a week?” We do, and the kicker of the movie is that things actually are too good to be true. Turns out the MegaRecords label is not after great music but great business (lol): For years, every one of their successful music acts has seen victory through simply because the label has embedded subliminal messages in the tunes to essentially hypnotize listeners into buying their products. Obsessively catering to trends and fads, MegaRecords has at this point been able to craft a craze a week. Josie and the Pussycats is just the next one.
Coming together is a layered and frenetic satire conspicuously designed to make us ruminate on which trends we ourselves have fallen victim to, how our own media consumption can skew destructive. What the film does better, though, is poke fun at how individuality goes commodified by the entertainment industry; one will quickly think of all the Madonna wannabes who peppered the mid-1980s or the flannel-wearing wallflowers who tried their best to emulate Kurt Cobain and all his comrades in the early ‘90s, spending what was necessary to get their imitations just right. The way Wyatt and his main associate, Fiona (Parker Posey, foam-mouthed), so feverishly work to manipulate the masses, as well as the parodic use of product placement as part of the scenery, makes us contemplate just how much of our own consumption stems from subtle deception and manipulation.
The film is loud and obvious in its satire, which understandably has not sat well with a number of critics. Are you that much better than the thing you're criticizing if so much of that "criticism" feels like a pure recapitulation? But I find all its energy invigorating. The film does also stoop to teen movie formulae, with largely underexamined Girl Power becoming a big takeaway and a contrived romantic possibility becoming a reality. But Josie and the Pussycats is so weird and funny and frequently smart that I’m wont to call it masterful even more than I’d call it underrated. The music isn’t too bad, either. B+