The Joys of Josie and the Pussycats
A while back, I wrote an article about the movie Josie and the Pussycats for a website that I write for. The reason? Rachael Leigh Cook’s birthday. However, after I wrote it, there was an editor change at said website, and the new editor wasn’t interested in the piece. I tried, briefly, to find a home for it, and then figured I’d just post it here. Obviously, Sunday is no longer Cook’s birthday. Nevertheless, enjoy please.
Sunday is the actress Rachael Leigh Cook’s birthday. This may not mean a lot to you, unless you are familiar with the 2001 moving picture Josie and the Pussycats. In that case… well, her birthday may still not mean a ton to you, but Josie and the Pussycats might, because it is a great movie. Due to its lack of success at the box office, boffo it was not, it is destined to reach no higher acclaim than “cult classic,” but it is deserving of that designation. It also is a tremendous time capsule of the state of pop music, and music television, at the turn of the millennium. It also may have ended Cook’s career as a leading actress in major motion pictures. That’s an awful lot to stem from a movie based on the least known and popular characters from the Archie comics universe.
Josie and the Pussycats is an all-girl band that began life as a comic book about their music and their friends and love interests and other general slice of life comic book stuff. This led to a cartoon is the ‘70s that, at one point, became a cartoon where the band was in outer space and meeting aliens. They sort of dressed like leopards and were marginally popular, at best. The comic only ran regularly until 1982, at which point Josie and the Pussycats only popped up periodically in other comics or one shots. Yet, they decided to take this property, and turn it into a movie aimed at teenagers in the year 2001, even though their target audience wasn’t alive when the gals were relevant in pop culture.
There are people who will complain about this. They are the same people who complain about them making a The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie because “nobody remembers it.” These people are stupid. Whether or not people “remember” an entity is irrelevant when it comes to adaptation of a property. If you create a good movie and market it well, you should still be able to be a success. Original ideas sell all the time, and nobody complains about those. Evidently, you either have to be well-remembered, but not adored enough that people complain about a movie adaptation or remake, or be something nobody has any memory of. Anything in between just doesn’t work for some people.
However, we are not here to complain about the folly of people’s thought processes. We are here to talk about how great Josie and the Pussycats is. Even with all the defense provided for the movie’s existence thus far, you could be forgiven for not expecting this movie to be any good on paper. It is, after all, a seemingly thin idea for a film. It’s a movie about a musical trio of which one is played by Tara Reid. It could have been silly and slight, but also inane and without any momentum or purpose. Granted, any movie, no matter the concept, can go wrong, but some movies feel more likely to go wrong than others.
Josie and the Pussycats is silly, and it is even perhaps slight, but these are not problems. It’s a delightful fun little film. It is the kind of movie that people like to make analogies about various sweet, sugar foods for. It is, in the parlance of our times, a confection. Which is fine. Not everything has to be serious and heavy. That being said, while this movie may be light, do not mistake it for simple or dumb. It’s uncommonly smart and clever for a seemingly tossed off movie for teenagers. Also, and this is probably obvious by this point, you can enjoy this movie without being teenaged or female. Fun for all ages and genders, yo.
When the movie begins, The Pussycats are a struggling pop punk band in Riverdale. We meet them through an implausibly syrupy montage. You’ve got Josie, played by birthday gal Cook, on guitar and lead vocals. There’s Valerie, as portrayed by Rosario Dawson, on bass. Lastly, there’s Reid as Melody, the drummer, and the dumb one. Make your own joke here. However, when the film begins, the focus is more on Du Jour, a parody of the boy bands that were so prominent in the era. Notable faces such as Seth Green and Donald Faison are part of Du Jour, known for their hit single “Backdoor Lover,” which is, of course, harmless in their world, but a pretty clunky joke about anal sex in ours. That being said, if you are going to have a song that could plausibly exist in sincerity, but also be humorous through dramatic irony, you are kind of limited in what you can do.
Anyway, the guys of Du Jour accidentally stumble upon a dangerous secret about the music business, their manager Wyatt, played by Alan Cumming, makes their plane crash. He ends up near Riverdale, which is how he stumbles upon The Pussycats. He and his MegaRecords cohorts, primarily Fiona, their CEO played by Parker Posey, decide they will make The Pussycats the new stars of the music industry.
You see, this is a movie that presupposes that pop music is not decided by merit. In fact, teenagers don’t make any decisions by merit. The secret Du Jour stumbled upon is that pop music, at least that released by MegaRecords, is loaded with subliminal messages. They decide what people buy, what colors are popular, what food to eat. There are girls who despite The Pussycats early on. Once MegaRecords has signed them, the girls love The Pussycats, because they have been told to. This makes Fiona and Wyatt and company the antagonists. Also, they work with the government, because the government is going to use this power for their own gain.
Of course, our dear heroes don’t know anything about this. They are just making music and having fun. Then, naturally, seeds of dissent are sowed. Josie and her love interest, Alan M, have a falling out. Josie and the band have a falling out. Josie has been brainwashed, by the way. Anyway, Josie finds out eventually, and works to thwart Fiona’s plan to mass brainwash people at a major music festival. It works, the girls reunite, and Josie and Alan M. kiss during the big concert. Oh, also Fiona had switched out the final subliminal message to one about how cool she is, because she is insecure about her lisp. Also, Wyatt is secretly an albino and he and Fiona fall in love. Plus, Du Jour returns in full body casts to try and fight MegaRecords, but it doesn’t work. Nobody said this movie wasn’t silly.
The plot is serviceable. It works in parts and it doesn’t work in other parts. However, it’s satirical elements do work. It’s not the most viciously pointed movie. Armando Ianucci would probably yawn in derision. The makers of Josie and the Pussycats weren’t looking to make Network, though. What they made is something funny and breezy with more purpose and sharpness than its brethren. It’s a big fish in a small pond.
It’s a funny movie with a lot of good jokes, and some nice meta elements to it. Per example, there are two characters in this movie, Alexander and Alexandra Cabot. Alexander is the early, ineffectual manager of The Pussycats. Alexandra is just sort of there to be snarky and snobby. At one point, she is asked why she is ever there, and she mutters under her breath “I’m here because I was in the comic book.” Eugene Levy and, more importantly, Carson Daly, have funny appearances as themselves. Daly, and it’s not his fault, still represents the hollow aspects of music in the era. As the host of Total Request Live, he was the conduit between the screaming teens in the audience and musicians such as Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Here, he plays a tool of the evil MegaRecords, willing to even kill for the sake of their mission. While he gets a lot of crap, Daly always seemed to have a sense of humor about himself, and it is fun to see it on display.
Perhaps the most commendable aspect of the show, though, is its dedication to product placement. The movie is about pop culture selling us products and consumables, and every single frame of this movie has product placement in it. The movie is plastered, knowingly, winkingly, with product placement. Yes, as an adult, you know it is, in its way, genuine product placement, but it’s also funny product placement. It’s product placement that actually means something.
What about the music, you ask? This is, after all, a movie about a band. It has original music. It has a soundtrack. Is it any good, though? Well… do you like pop punk? Do you like The Donnas? If you do, you’ll probably love it. For the rest of us, though, it’s, eh, tolerable? Some of it is pretty good, some of it is mediocre and meh. None of it is bad. It’s the music of the “counter culture” that is accepted by the culture. They had some good people working on the music, though. Folks like Matthew Sweet, Adam Schlesinger, Adam Duritz, Babyface, Jane Wiedlin, and Bif Naked worked on it. Kay Hanley, from Ben Wyatt’s favorite band Letters to Cleo, dubbed in the vocals for Josie. It really is music of an era. The whole movie is of the era, but it is a perfect capturing of the era. If you want to remember, or learn, about what music was like around Y2K, watch Josie and the Pussycats.
It also needs to be pointed out that the movie is well-acted, by and large. It would be hyperbolic to say that Posey deserved an Oscar nomination for her work as Fiona. It is not hyperbolic to say that she deserved a nomination for a Golden Globe, considering they have a category for comedies and musicals. She is, genuinely, amazing in the movie. She doesn’t run away with the movie, because Cook is also a delight and endlessly charming, but Posey takes the movie to a whole ‘nother level.
Let’s speak to Cook, though. As was just stated, she’s very good in this movie as the lead character. There is a fine supporting cast behind her, but Cook is out front, and she leads the way with aplomb. At the time, Cook’s star was on the ascent. She made She’s All That not just tolerable, but actually good solely based on her performance. She was a young actress with the world in front of her, getting another chance to star in a movie. Josie and the Pussycats had a budget of $39 million. It made $14.9 million in the box office.
That is, no matter how you slice it, a bomb. Critics didn’t really like it, either. Roger Ebert gave it half a star, which, frankly, should lead to the posthumous revocation of his Pulitzer for criticism. Look at Cook’s filmography post-Josie. It’s made up almost entirely of completely obscure movies and direct-to-DVD or direct-to-VOD affairs. Now, this is being written without knowledge of Cook’s wants or desires. Perhaps being a movie star didn’t suit her. Maybe, at a certain point, she wanted to spend more time with her husband and her kids. It’s entirely possible she’s tough to work with. All these possibilities accounted for, what it appears, on the surface, is that this movie bombed, and then Hollywood decided Cook didn’t work as a movie star. She was barely in her early 20s, and Hollywood was done with her.
If this is true, this is bullshit. Look, you are dealing with a total Rachael Leigh Cook apologist here, but Cook is great, and Josie and the Pussycats is a real good movie, and she should have been a star. She could have knocked out a million rom coms. She should be currently transitioning into television because she’s old to be considered at a movie star level of physical attractiveness anymore. Even if the movie was a bomb, and it shouldn’t have been because, again, it’s super good and fun, how anybody could write off an actress after one movie that didn’t do well financially is baffling. It’s not like she hasn’t been willing to take work. She played a short-term love interest on Psych, where she was, naturally, great. She played a supporting role on some TNT show starring Eric McCormack that you don’t remember. Watch Josie and the Pussycats and try and say with a straight face you wouldn’t follow this woman to the ends of the Earth. It’s enough to make you wish that the subliminal advertising capabilities of MegaRecords were real, and that they’d use it to make Cook a star.
Let us not mar this celebration of an overlooked delight of a movie by chastises Hollywood, though. All we are saying, is give Josie and the Pussycats a chance. If you were a teenager at the turn of the millennium, you owe it to yourself. If you enjoy music at all, you owe it to yourself. If you want a movie that embodies Cyndi Lauper’s notion that girls just want to have fun, this is the movie for you. This movie about an underdog band turned into an underdog film. The Pussycats of the movie overcame those odds to find success. Hopefully, belatedly, the movie can do the same thing.