The fictional all-girl music group Josie and the Pussycats has had quite the storied history, with their origin dating back to the early 1960s as simple guest stars in Archie Comics, that is until eventually landing their own title and a competing Saturday morning cartoon in the 70s, but their rocky road to stardom wouldn’t see a feature film until 2001 when the writing and directing team of Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan were finally able to realize a true live-action musical epic.
That 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats was a box office bomb cannot be disputed, earning back only half of its $39 million budget, but over the years the film has been re-discovered and re-evaluated and has become something of a cult favourite that many consider being an Idiocracy version of the music business, with its lampooning the idea of branding and product placement to a startling degree – the filmmakers have clearly stated that they made not a single dime off of all the logos and product placements that litter the film – and it should also be credited for being a spot-on depiction of manufactured pop bands and is made all the more brilliant by creating some of the funniest songs that would be worthy of Spinal Tap. The movie opens by introducing us to such a band, which is called DuJour and features the likes Breckin Meyer, Seth Green, Alexander Martin and Donald Faison as this rather clueless boyband who are “killed” off when they discover a subliminal track hidden inside their music.
With the world’s number one pop music band out of commission, it’s up to MegaRecords executive Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) to find a replacement band and, lucky for him, he stumbles into the nearby town of Riverdale where he discovers a local garage band called The Pussycats, which consists of lead vocalist and guitarist Josie McCoy (Rachael Leigh Cook), bassist Valerie Brown (Rosario Dawson) and drummer Melody Valentine (Tara Reid) – in a role that Reid was born to play – and being the fact that their last gig was at the local bowling alley anything would be a step up so they quickly sign the Standard Rich and Famous Contract and are soon whisked to the Big City, but Valerie is quickly disturbed when Wyatt renames the band “Josie and the Pussycats” without their permission.
Note: This movie is clearly set in an elseworld where product placement and promotional ad campaigns have run out of control, this could never happen in the real world.
The plot of this movie is much in keeping with the animated series, usually involving some kind of world-conquering scheme, but in this case, it’s the revelation that MegaRecords had been using subliminal messages to brainwash teenagers into buying consumer products, shocking, I know. The company’s CEO Fiona (Parker Posey) has been in league with the United States government in the hope of tapping the unchecked wealth of this particular demographic and with plans to expand their operations globally. The 1972 Hanna-Barbera cartoon often had the Pussycats thwarting a variety of would-be world conquerors but the evil machinations in this film are not only fairly plausible but rather prescient, in fact, Parker Posey and Alan Cumming don’t just try and steal the will of America’s teenagers they also do their best to steal the film away from Josie and the Pussycats.
Where the film drops the ball is when it comes to being an adaptation of the comic or the Saturday morning cartoon as the inclusion of their manager Alexander Cabot (Paulo Costanzo) and his sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle) are not given much to do and Alexandra’s jealousy of Josie and her constant plots to steal Josie’s thunder, as well as her boyfriend, from the comics and cartoon is completely missing in this film. Speaking of Josie’s boyfriend, the love story between Alan M. (Gabriel Mann) and Josie seems rather forced and once again the screen time is given to this subplot is no more than a threadbare development of his character, and when he finally declares his love for Josie during the film’s final act I’d almost forgotten his character existed. Now, to be fair, this film had to balance building the friendship between the three girls and this crazy brainwashing plot so secondary characters from the comic book were bound to get a little short-shifted and though these secondary characters popping in from time to time did tend to hurt the film’s pacing it was not to a great degree.
• Alan M is credited as being “The sexiest guy in Riverdale” and while Gabriel Mann is a handsome enough man he is far from the muscular beefcake that the character was in the cartoon.
• They give Alexandra Cabot brown hair with a whitish-blonde streak instead of her trademark black and white “skunk look” hairdo but they make up for this misstep by having her answer the question as to why she came along with the band by simply stating “Because I was in the comic book.”
• Valerie is almost being left behind when their limo pulls away could be a reference to Hanna-Barbera decision back in the day to make Valerie Caucasian, instead of African American as she was in the comic, only to be argued out of the change by their music producer who had already hired an African American singer and refused to fire her.
• When Fiona gives her speech about mind control to the visiting foreign dignitaries she points out that “The Chinese guy knows what I’m talking about” which is a nice nod to the film The Manchurian Candidate.
• In the Pussycats, Valeria is the group’s bass player and yet in the cartoon all we ever saw her play was the tambourines, so it was nice to see her really rock out in this movie
So with all that great stuff going for it why did it fail? Well, the terribleness of the Spice Girls movie certainly didn’t help as it came out a few years earlier and poisoned the well, and Universal didn’t give Josey and the Pussycats the greatest marketing campaign as such I’m sure many people didn’t know exactly what kind of film they were about to see. Also, films based on cartoons had been more hit than miss over the years and film about an all-girl band based on a 70s cartoon, that was itself based on an Archie comic book spin-off, could have kept away audience members who otherwise would have got a kick out of the fun and subversive elements of this delightful satiric comedy. Another element that should not be overlooked is the songs as not only were the boyband parodies we got from DuJour hilarious the ones we see The Pussycats perform are actually worthy of topping the charts, in fact, even though this film bombed at the box office its soundtrack went gold and that’s impressive no matter how you look at it. Overall, this film was an incredible fun satire with a stand-out cast bolstered by some truly great songs, if you haven’t seen this gem of a film do yourself a favour and track it down.
Note: Due to the level of profanity and adult themes in this adaptation of Josey in the Pussycats the people over at Archie Comics denounced the film and discouraged people from seeing it, but years later they would be fully behind the CW series Riverdale which had way darker themes than could be found in this movie.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
It may have flopped during its initial release but it’s great to see that this wonderful spoof of consumerism and its send-up of the music industry has garnered quite the following over the years as it truly is an incredibly fun film that has one of the best casts ever to be assembled for an adaption of a cartoon.