Josie and the Pussycats (Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, 2001)

Designed for the film lover in mind, SHOUT SELECT shines a light on films that deserve a spot on your shelf. From acknowledged classics to cult favorites to unheralded gems, SHOUT SELECT celebrates the best in filmmaking, giving these movies the love and attention they deserve.

LONG TAILS AND EARS FOR HATS!

Re-discover the Pussycats, Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid), and Val (Rosario Dawson), three small-town musicians with big dreams but little future! The chance of a lifetime arrives out of the blue when Wyatt (Alan Cumming) of MegaRecords signs them to an awesome recording contract without even hearing them play. Suddenly, Josie and the Pussycats are living life in the fast lane with sold-out concerts, chartered jets, a number one single, and global stardom. Their good fortune comes at price however and the Pussycats soon discover that they’re being used by their record label’s maniacal CEO Fiona (Parker Posey) to control the youth of America. Featuring a hit soundtrack of pop-punk songs and purr-fectly hilarious performances, Josie and the Pussycats is a modern cult classic about friendship, rock music, and capitalist conspiracies.

Special Features:

  • NEW HD Film Transfer
  • NEW “Back To Riverdale” With Directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont and Stars Rachael Lee Cook, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid
  • NEW “Here and Meow” With Singer Kay Hanley
  • NEW “In Through The Backdoor” With Actors Seth Green, Donald Faison, and Breckin Meyer
  • Audio Commentary With Directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont and Producer Marc Platt
  • Backstage Pass
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Josie and the Pussycats “3 Small Words” Music Video
  • Dujour “Backdoor Lover” and “Dujour Around The World” Music Videos
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Production Notes

Release it Shout Select, before someone else does …

In 2017, poster impresario Mondo released the soundtrack to Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont’s Josie and the Pussycats (2001) in its first-ever vinyl pressing and it organized a reunion screening/concert/Q&A at LA’s famed Ace Hotel in support. Sixteen years earlier, Josie had flopped at the box office (earning back only $14.9 million of its $39 million budget) but its soundtrack went certified gold by selling more than 500,000 copies, eventually being commemorated in that (now sold out) purple leopard vinyl release. And while the movie has since grown into a modern cult favourite on par with its immediately embraced album, the film continues to inexplicably languish on an eighteen year-old standard definition DVD. Someone needs to remedy this cinematic injustice and Shout Select is the purr-fect label to do so, ready to embrace Josie and the Pussycats‘ dated, pop-punk fun; its trio of eminently crush-able “it girls;” and its smashing of the Bechdel Test at nearly every turn.

For those not already wearing their kittie-ears, the Josie and the Pussycats film is based on the Archie Comics comic book which ran from 1963 to 1982. Filmation’s hit animated series The Archie Show, along with the show’s #1 radio hit “Sugar, Sugar,” inspired Hanna-Barbera to adapt Josie and the Pussycats into two animated series – the 16-episode Josie and the Pussycats (1970-71) and the 16-episode Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space (1971-72) – followed by a guest appearance on a 1973 episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies entitled “The Haunted Showboat.” Most notable to Kaplan and Elfont’s adaptation of the property, the filmic Josie and the Pussycats arrived on the silver screen just as another Archie Comics product, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, concluded its four-season run on ABC. The show had been a mega-hit on the small screen (surely encouraging Josie’s leap to the big screen) but Sabrina was unable to keep the network’s family friendly TGIF line-up on top of the ratings and a contract dispute between the show and ABC resulted in the program switching to The WB network later that year to complete its final three seasons. Sabrina‘s ratings for the 2000-2001 plunged with the change, perhaps foretelling Josie‘s destiny.

The cinematic version of Josie and the Pussycats casts Rachael Lee Cook in its title role as Josie. Cook, who beat out Maggie Gyllenhaal and Zooey Deschanel for the role as the Pussycats’ frontwoman, was barely more than a year out from the massive success of She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999) and still riding a wave of overly specific awards including the Teen Choice Award for “Choice Movie: Love Scene,” the YoungStar Award for “Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Comedy Film,” the Kids’ Choice Award for “Favorite Movie Couple,” and the Blockbuster Entertainment Award for “Favorite Actress – Newcomer (Internet Only).” Rosasio Dawson, who auditioned against Beyoncé, Aaliyah, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, plays stalwart bassist Valerie Brown, while Tara Reid’s casting as ditzy drummer Melody Valentine was secured by her association with the hugely successful American Pie (Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz, 1999). The trio went through “band camp,” learning to actually play their instruments and rehearsing their rock swagger under the tutelage of the pop-punk group Powder. The band’s shifty and temperamental manager Alexander Cabot (Paulo Costanzo); his self-centred sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle); and Josie’s love interest, the sensitive folksinger Alan M. (Gabriel Mann) also assume roles in the movie, but Josie and the Pussycats is primarily about Josie, Val, and Melody; about the outlandish challenges of being commodified by the music industry; and about the struggle to remain friends first and a band second.

Opportunity arrives to Riverdale in the form of Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), a shady promoter for MegaRecords who parachutes into town after dropping his superstar boy band DuJour for asking too many questions about their latest track. Wyatt’s boss, MegaRecords CEO Fiona (Parker Posey), has a deal with the government to hide subliminal messages (voiced by Mr. Moviefone himself, Russ Leatherman) in rock music in order to sell the latest fad to kids. Wyatt consequently has little interest in actually hearing The Pussycats’ music and the band are too smitten with the prospect of fame and fortune to wonder if the opportunity is too good to be true. The Pussycats are promptly whisked off to New York City for make-overs, photo shoots, recording sessions, some strategic brainwashing aimed at separating Josie from the rest of the group, and the attempted murder of Val and Melody by impressionist Aries Spears and TRL host (and then boyfriend to Tara Reid) Carson Daly. Kaplan and Elfont’s script anticipates Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), which hit theatres only five months later but proved considerably more successful at the box office. Both comedies involve subliminal messages and brainwashing conspiracies, focus on unlikely pop culture figures, and lampoon consumer culture.

Josie and the Pussycats functions as both a time capsule for and a satire of a brief transition point in the popular culture. Aside from the copious amounts of blue eyeshadow and low rise pants, the film documents the heydays of “tween culture” and an era of booming compact disc sales. In just a couple of years, the alternative music scene, along with its image of unsullied musical authenticity, had given way to midriff-baring blonde pop starlets and boy band quintets manufactured by talent scouting fraudsters and/or the likeability training of The Mickey Mouse Club. The music scene that The Pussycats broke into had become one of corporate synergies, a long way from the DIY Riot Grrrl Movement and the freshly shuttered Lilith Fair, never mind artist-led activism like Pearl Jam’s failed lawsuit against Ticketmaster. Corporate America had quickly commodified Seattle’s grunge scene (see the Shout Select release of Doug Pray’s excellent doc Hype!) and the mainstream success of mall punk in the late 1990s and early 2000s sent tweens to their local Hot Topic for retail-priced rebellion. The 2003 MTV Awards nicely encapsulated the shift, when Chris Rock’s withering remark, “Good Charlotte? More like mediocre Green Day,” was thrown back at him when Good Charlotte claimed the Viewer’s Choice prize later that night. (Fact! Kids don’t pay applicable rates when voting by phone!)

Satire has the unfortunate knack of becoming true with time. Anna Waronker of that dog. (who worked on the film’s hit soundtrack with producer Babyface, Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo (singing as Josie), Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s, Canadian rocker Bif Naked, Matthew Sweet, and others) neatly called Josie “the Idiocracy version of the music industry,” a statement on both its satirical edge and its capitalist soothsaying. The film’s best joke, an incessant degree of product placement, no longer looks that out of place today. The Target-branded jet interior (with random cleaning and laundry products arranged throughout), Josie’s Revlon-themed hotel room, Melody’s McDonald’s-inspired shower (complete with golden arches tiles and combo meal sponges), or even Manhattan itself no longer looks that out of place by today’s standards. It was and still is a reminder that a lot of money is being made and that artists like The Pussycats are merely a revenue stream in the eyes of more powerful interests. Ironically, the music industry cash-machine was breaking down just as Josie and the Pussycats opened in multiplexes. Napster was already facing legal challenges by artists and labels alike and the first iPod was little more than a year away from market. CD sales would take a hit in the aftermath, MTV retreated into reality television programming, and corporate sponsorships collapsed music videos and product commercials into an indistinguishable capitalist lovechild. It’s no surprise that the military-industrial complex transitions to movies and away from music by the film’s end, although that industry’s challenges weren’t far away either.

During the production, the directors were cautioned by their producer Marc Platt about making a “feathered fish” – a movie that’s neither one thing nor the other. In retrospect, both Kaplan and Elfont saw the conflict between the film’s bright shiny surface and its subversive underside. Still, Kaplan maintains Josie failed by missing its audience on release:

You know, I’m not sure I ever thought, “It’s a cult movie.” I thought we were making a fun studio movie with the subversive part clearly slipped in. But that changed the moment I saw the marketing, because it was all pink and purple and juvenile and they were marketing it to 10 year olds. The people who were supposed to sell the movie didn’t understand the movie, nor who it was for. And that’s when I realized, “Oops, nope. No one’s going to see this.”

It’s notable that Kaplan and Elfont have discussed the intended positioning of Josie and the Pussycats as a kind of response to another anti-consumerist fantasy, David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). For Kaplan, Fight Club is a “self-congratulatory … movie that seems like it’s [about] people who have never actually had anything bad happen. It’s all fantasy about wanting to have those bad experiences. But it’s still young-bro-white-guy-rage that’s all really about nothing.” It might be fair to suggest that Fight Club is about the rabbit hole of “white polos, khakis, and tiki torches” and not the uncritical endorsement the directors suggest, but their concern about rebellion from a privileged space is fair and Josie does ably push against these angry young men with a story about female unity set in the still Avril Lavigne-less pop-punk sausage-fest.

It is easy to be suspicious of Josie and the Pussycats‘ anti-consumerist credentials. This is an Archie Comics property that required its characters be shown brushing their teeth and using seat belts, and so this “feathered fish” can be seen as uncomfortably walking the line between social critique and mall-punk fun. Those looking for a moment of explicit indictment against its own fad-buying viewership will find it lacking. Josie is not Nada flipping the audience the middle finger at the end of They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), aware that it’s actually the public, not the aliens, that enable their subjugation, and so the film’s more than 70 separate (unpaid) product placements may rest rather ambivalently between gag, commentary, and unavoidable shilling. Still, there is a more charitable view of Josie‘s feathered fish, one that conceives of it as Naomi Klein’s No Logo with a sparkling purple cover, aimed at warning a generation of young girls and women about corporate manipulation and economic exploitation. It may not have sparked a revolution, but Josie‘s message of acceptance, loyalty, and the ruthlessness of capitalism touched countless young people and the film remains close to their hearts in adulthood.

The release of Mondo’s vinyl album sparked a barrage of think-pieces, reconsiderations, and historical reviews of Josie and the Pussycats and so there are tons of fascinating facts about the film that have gone unmentioned here but deserve mention. For example, you might be interested to know that:

  • Bono loved the film;
  • Howard Stern counted the soundtrack among his favourite albums at the time;
  • Rosario Dawson saw firsthand the positive influence of the film, recalling to Indiewire, “I’d have mothers come up to me and be like, ‘This is the first brown doll I can give my daughter, so thank you;'”
  • Parker Posey wasn’t really on board with the project (“Well, this movie is paying for my apartment.”) until Alan Cumming arrived on set to perform “some of the most shameless acting I’ve ever done;”
  • Puma donated thousands of T-shirts to the film but Gap declined to participate in the film, negating an “Everyone in Leopard” gag; and
  • Alan Cumming has a “big hunk of plastic roast beef from the set in my house.”

And, of course, there is DuJour, Wyatt’s idiot boy band made up of Travis (Seth Green), DJ (Donald Faison), Marco (Breckin Meyer), and Les (Alexander Martin). Few things in the film are funnier than DuJour’s performance of “Backdoor Lover” or Travis and Marco’s fight over who gets to do “the face” (another odd anticipation of Zoolander). DuJour alone justifies a stacked Shout Select edition of Josie and the Pussycats, so can someone over at the imprint please get to work on a jerkin’ new edition of this title!

Credits: For this imagined Shout Select release, MMC! has ported over the content of the existing DVD and have added a selection of new interviews that rounds out this special edition.

This post owes credit to Nathan Rabin’s “My Year of Flops” article for The AV Club, Carley Tauchert’s reflection on the film for Den of Geek!, Mikael Wood’s “Critic’s Notebook” article for The Los Angeles Times, Hazel Cill’s article on the film’s casting for Jezebel, Leah Mandel’s amazing oral history for The Fader, Film Crit Hulk’s excellent interview with Kaplan and Elfont for Observer, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim’s analysis for Complex, Elizabeth Logan’s analysis for Glamour, Emma Garland’s reconsideration for Vice, Collin Brennan’s tempered reappraisal for Consequence of Sound, Nick Spacek’s article for Starburst, Rick Austin’s reflection on the movie for Fortress of Solitude, Ilana Kaplan’s interview on the 16th anniversary reunion and concert for Billboard, Scott Beggs’s “Movies We Love” article for Film School Rejects, Russ Burlingame’s listicle for comicbook.com, and Garin Pirnia’s listicle for Mental Floss,as well as D. Harlan Wilson’s Cultographies monograph and Jonatham Letham’s Deep Focus monograph for They Live.

2 thoughts on “Josie and the Pussycats (Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, 2001)

  1. moviefanman August 14, 2019 / 9:24 pm

    I remember occasionally watching the cartoon as a boy back when Cartoon Network showed good material, but could never get into the film, though I get it’s influence for many people. Nice as always.

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