Why I Love… #158: Josie and the Pussycats

Year:  2001

Directors:  Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont

Stars:  Rachel Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, Parker Posey

When the movie of Josie and the Pussycats came out I was eighteen. I didn’t know what Archie comics were (were they even big in the UK?). I hadn’t seen any cartoons of it. I’d never heard of this property. If I had, I probably would have sneered and dismissed it. 18-year-old me was too busy collecting Kubrick DVDs and reading Naomi Klein (hang on… we’ll come back to that). What a self-serious little piss-ant I probably was.

So, I came to this gem later. Much later. Just a few years ago, really.

Now I’m 40. Today I’m in recoup mode after catching the Cardiff leg of Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour (on my birthday!). Much of my former gatekeeping – ‘film-bro’-style and otherwise – has been mercifully abandoned in favour of deferring to the things that simply make me happy. That speak to me. That – in the case of Josie and the Pussycats – make me beam.

Josie sits in a holy quaternity for me, alongside it’s spiritual kin Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), But, I’m a Cheerleader and Dick (both ’99). All four movies sit in isolation with their own quirks and foibles. But they all have these defining characteristics; all offer a skewed version of the then-contemporary status quo via pastel-hued subterfuge. They’re all much smarter than many might give them credit for, serving up wry observations on American society through subversive satire. They’re all, also, hilarious as shit.

The Pussycats in question are Riverdale’s all-female pop-punk wannabes; singer/guitarist Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook), bassist Val (Rosario Dawson) and drumming ditz Melody (Tara Reid). After world-conquering boyband Du Jour mysteriously disappear in a plane crash, MegaRecords A’n’R man Wyatt Frame (Alan Cummings) happens upon the down-on-their-luck trio and makes a seemingly impulsive decision to groom the girls into the Next Big Thing. Cue a high-speed rags to riches story… with a twist.

From its very beginning Josie presents a skewed notion of the norm. Everyone’s used to the irksome reality of product placement in popular culture, even more so today than when Josie was released. Targeted marketing based on our browsing has joined long-established phenomena such as brands promoted heavily through tie-ins with tentpole movie releases or celebrity endorsements. Etcetera, etcetera. But the movie’s world is saturated. Du Jour’s private jet is bafflingly dotted with Target branding. Colgate. Tide. Flummoxed by Wyatt’s sudden offer of a record contract, the girls flee to the bathroom… where Starbucks’ logo is inexplicably prominent. Is that an Evian aquarium?? A McDonald’s shower?? Isn’t it all a bit too tactless?

Well, yes, of course. Josie and the Pussycats unashamedly assaults the oppressiveness of branded space, making its pervasiveness the target of biting shade and ire. Wyatt has no interest in the talent, aspirations or creativity of Josie and co., they’re just the latest vehicle for MegaRecords’ insidious subliminal messaging. Above Wyatt in the pecking order is Parker Posey’s hilarious fashionista exec Fiona, clumsily negotiating deals with the government at the company’s secret underground base.

Josie and the Pussycats presents an extreme version of corporate America that is only nominally removed from our crass reality, where designer brands hold sway and pop culture is pre-packaged with conniving exactitude. The machinations of big record labels and their PR firms are satirised and, in the process, negatively reflected upon for their callous money-grabbing motivations (and yes, I write this the day after participating in the same Du Jour-style hysteria, attending a Beyoncé concert)*. That this is the message of a major motion picture – itself a franchise commodity – feels both gallingly brave and metatextually brazen. There’s a level on which Josie and the Pussycats is selling it’s own anti-establishment ethos.

There are other targets in the movie’s sights, too. Wyatt repeatedly tries to erase Val’s Blackness from the group, referring to her falteringly as ‘tanned’ and then overtly blocking her from public appearances, shrugging off these exclusions as accidents. It’s shrewdly indicative of the systemic racism found in so many industries, let alone the craven corners of the entertainment industry. Exposing it on screen alongside breezy comedy shows its repulsive normalisation. It rebukes it.

In amongst all this is one of the era’s funniest and most glossily packaged comedies. The costuming and production design consistently pushes into the gaudy (here it is most kindred with Romy and Michele and But, I’m a Cheerleader), yet it owns its own choices in this regard so completely as to make them feel like a desirable – even flattering – aesthetic. The same way Romy and Michele’s self-tailored outfits are both kitsch and gorgeous. This appreciation of kitsch is most apparent in Fiona’s hot pink boudoir. Nobody could relax in that noise… but it also looks divine on screen.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001) – Review

The script is a hoot, dotted with jokes that cross generational borders (it has a similar firebrand spirit to those early seasons of The Simpsons, and Josie appeared around the time that particular hot streak was starting to peter out). Kids aren’t going to appreciate the mountains of white powder that Fiona hurriedly wipes off of her office’s control panel, but the adults will note it. It is also, fittingly, wryly self-referential and aware of the culture it sits within. Cousin Alexandra Cabot (Missi Pyle) verbalises that she’s only involved in part of the plotline because she was in the comic books offering a bold fourth-wall bust, while Cummings makes a dawdling reference to his character Sandy Frink from Romy and Michele, suggestive of a flexible reality between the two pictures.

The cast sell it with pizazz. Cummings riffs further on the catty camp persona he had previously brought to other pictures by this time (see the aforementioned Romy and Michele reference, and think also of his role in tacky movie milestone Spice World), the central trio present persistent effervescence and charm (flexing her comedic muscles particularly is Reid, who makes Melody’s idiocy verge on genius), and then? Then there’s Posey, wiping the floor with anyone who dares share a scene with her. Writer/director duo Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont elicit the best out of everyone (and even add to the movie’s meta-mania with a blink and you’ll miss it reference to their prior effort Can’t Hardly Wait).

It would be all-too-easy – maybe even fitting – if the music in the film were a mere afterthought, but the songs are absolute bangers. Death Waltz Recordings recently put out a thoroughly welcome reissue of Josie and the Pussycats’ fictional debut album on vinyl – doubling as the movie’s official soundtrack – and it’s a stacked set of pop-punk jams and covers. “Pretend to be Nice” is a genuine earworm. When the movie charts in montage it’s journey to chart supremacy, one buys it. The song has what it takes.

And so, back to Naomi Klein, whose non-fiction exploration of the world of corporate identity No Logo was the bible for my moody 18-year-old self; a treaty on how Nike, Shell, Disney, Microsoft, McDonald’s and others have systematically changed the way corporate business operates and their overwhelming influence on the escalating monoculture. It serves as an eloquent paean to unbranded space and the decimation of choice. It remains among the most formative books I’ve ever read close to a quarter of a century later. I’ve not picked it up in a while, but I imagine it resonates as much if not more now that things have certainly gotten worse.

Given its imprint on my mindset then, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps 18-year-old me would’ve dug Josie and the Pussycats. Would’ve loved and appreciated its vicious swipes at vapid corporate culture. Would’ve delighted in its glorious showmanship. I love Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont’s bubbly, halter-topped time capsule of camp audacity.

Now – with three out of four of my quaternity added to this series – all I need to do is get around to revealing why I love Dick.

*she fucking rules, come at me

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