Monday, September 28, 2020

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS 2001

A couple of years back I remember reading an article about a social-media feud between two contemporary recording artists popular with teenagers. I confess to even now only having the most superficial awareness of either singer, but what drew my attention to the article was a specific aspect of the pair's very public internet beef. It seems one artist (a music industry "veteran" of all of 10 years) was questioning the career legitimacy of a rival upstart who, in approximately half the career time, had already amassed platinum records, Grammy nominations, and other bragging stats comparable to and (the real crux of the grievance) surpassing those of the complainant: the barely-out-of-diapers recording star for whom 10-years of iTunes downloads qualifies for Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award consideration.

To my geriatric ears, both “stars” are pretty much equal-opportunity music offenders, so their one-upmanship feud struck me as largely moot. But what stood out about their dispute was the degree to which each referenced things like concert venue sizes, number of awards won, Twitter follower numbers, and quantity of endorsement deals, as the final word, bottom-line determiners of credibility. Conspicuously missing from this materialism-fed back-and-forth was any mention of music. No talk of their love for what they're doing, devotion to craft, belief in the integrity of their expression, or even a commitment to its quality. The entire swath of recording artist legitimacy rested on which artist had the highest degree of fame, popularity, and marketability.  

The thrill that'll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone -  Dr. Hook

It got me to wondering whether this has always been the case. Have music, merchandising, and materialism always been bedfellows? After all, I remember way back in the ‘60s at the height of the anti-establishment, don't-trust-anyone-over-30 movement, pop star Donovan’s 1967 hit “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was licensed for TV commercials featuring Geraldine Chaplin hawking Love Cosmetics products. The Beatles in their day were merchandised to the heavens, I remember when Blondie's "Rip Her To Shreds" was reworked for a clothing ad, and in the '80s David Bowie and Heart were featured as "The Coffee Achievers" in an ad campaign by the American Coffee Association.

Maybe music has always been used to sell us stuff...but at least in the old days, the con was kept on the down-low. With authenticity and rebellion as their buzzwords, recording artists were able to make reams of money by convincing their fans that money was the last thing they cared about. Then, the absolute worst thing you could say about a band or singer was that they had "sold out." Now,  music hopefuls by the thousands flock to American Idol and The Voice clamoring just for the mere opportunity to sell out.

The Year of the Cat

Music & Marketing: In 1967, the same year Donovan went Madison Avenue corporate while retaining his image as the ultimate flower child, the insta-fame, pre-fab commercialism of the music business was amusingly satirized in the British film Smashing Time: an ultra-mod, cartoonishly silly, proto girl-power musical comedy starring Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham as pop stardom hopefuls. 
Set in London at the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties, Smashing Time tanked at the boxoffice due—at least in part—to its having been marketed to the wrong audience. Hoping to capitalize on the '60s mania for all things British, the film was pitched as a mad, mod, Carnaby Street romp for the youth market. But it was actually a fairly brutal satire of pop-culture, the easy gullibility of teenagers, and the whole media-driven “England Swings Like a Pendulum Do” thing. In essence, it was a movie that was taking the piss out of the very people it was being sold to. The targeted audience neither understood it nor appreciated it.

History Repeating: Hello, Josie & the Pussycats

Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie McCoy (Vocals & Guitar)

Rosario Dawson as Valerie Brown (Bass)

Tara Reid as Melody Valentine (Drums)

Alan Cummng as Wyatt Frame

Parker Posey as Fiona

Hollywood’s mania for cannibalizing its recent past hit a $30 million snag with the 2001 live-action film based on the Archie comic book spin-off, cartoon-inspired Josie & the Pussycats. A market-minded, going-to-the-well-too-often high-concept project born of the trend in cartoon-based movies flooding multiplexes at the time (The Flintstones, Casper, Mr. Magoo, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), it was also one of the few cartoon-based movies not to star Brendan Fraser (George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right). Still, Josie & the Pussycats had a lot of things going for it.

First off, it was about an all-girl band (Me: Hey!...just like The Carrie Nations in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls!!) and they called themselves The Pussycats (Me: Hey!...just like the larcenous go-go dancers in Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!). So despite being an entire generation too old for the tween demographic it was targeting, I was on board with the Pussycats movie from the start. 

Further upping the attraction quotient: the film featured an appealing cast of talented and charismatic up-and-comers; celebrity cameos (now so obscure they've become inadvertent emblems of the film’s “fickleness of fame” theme); a terrific soundtrack of original songs produced by multi-Grammy-winner Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds (Waiting to Exhale); and to counterbalance all that clean-cut Riverdale sincerity, a couple of edgy, indie darlings cast as the over-the-top villains of the piece. 

In an ironic twist that even Wyatt Frame would appreciate, a movie summarized (not inaccurately) by a cast member as "A sociopolitical statement about materialism and our hype-driven society," bombed at the boxoffice because it was so poorly marketed 

Under circumstances not dissimilar to those surrounding the release of Smashing Time 34-years earlier, Josie and the Pussycatshyped to the skies in shimmery shades of purple and bubblegum pink that all but dared anyone who was not an 11-to-13-year-old girl to take an interestsold itself as an ultra-hip, cartoonishly silly, girl-power musical comedy set in the rockin' world of tweenage punk-pop. In actuality, it was an adult-targeted, scathingly acerbic, subversively cynical, sharp-eyed satire that poked fun at the commodification of music; the synthetic fabrication of celebrity, and the omnipotent influence of advertising. More than a decade before the fact, Josie and the Pussycats delivered a tongue-in-cheek cautionary fable signaling where the music industry is heading (or arrived): a time when bands and recording artists have become little more than prepackaged commercials for their individual marketing brands.

Josie and the Pussycats was poised for success with a great release date (spring break), a well-publicized soundtrack album, and untold merchandising licenses lurking in the wings. By rights it should have spawned a hit single, a sequel (I sincerely would have loved a Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space movie), and an inevitable TV series. But for some reason, 13-year-olds failed to warm to a movie that mercilessly mocked trend whores and teenage faddism and the effortlessness with which media and marketing can lead 13-year-olds around by their soon-to-be-pierced noses.

Gabriel Mann as Alan M (aka Alec N or Adam 12)

Written and directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont of the modest teen hit Can’t Hardly Wait -1998 (for me it was Can’t Hardly Watch), Josie and the Pussycatswhile ultimately lacking any real clawsis cleverly-conceived, often hilarious, and delightfully offbeat in a way that should have made it as popular with 2001 teens as Heathers was in 1989 and Clueless in 1995. I most appreciated how the film didn't take itself too seriously and was willing to send everything up, including the whole rock 'n' roll musical genre.  
Alas, perhaps because the powers that be at MGM and Universal were so fixated on Josie’s broad-appeal, toy-friendly franchise potential, it entirely overlooked its niche appeal to an older demographic. After all,  Josie and the Pussycats had the highest name-recognition among parents and boomers who were likely tweens in 1970 when the Josie and the Pussycats cartoon aired on Saturday mornings on CBS.
Missi Pyle and Paulo Costanzo as siblings Alexandra & Alexander Cabot

Fear of looking like a middle-aged perv kept me from seeing Josie and the Pussycats when it came out (I envisioned being the only adult in a sea of little girls...little did I know, I’d likely have had the theater all to myself), but it appeared on DVD a scant four months later. Due to the near-unanimous pans it received from the critics, when I finally got my Netflix copy in the mail (red envelope!) I kept my expectations low. When it was over I was left wondering whether the critics and I had seen the same movie. I wound up watching Josie and the Pussycats three times before mailing it back, and by year’s end, it had made my personal 2001 Top Ten List
Gosford Park
In the Bedroom
Mulholland Drive
The Others
Training Day
Josie and the Pussycats
Pauline and Paulette
Moulin Rouge
The Piano Teacher
Monsters Inc.
(National year-end boxoffice charts for 2001 ranked Josie and the Pussycats very near the bottom at #123, sandwiched between those classics Joe Dirt and Freddy Got Fingered.)
A candy-colored, TV-commercial-glossy vision of consumer-culture on steroids, Josie and the Pussycats looks like it was filmed inside the head of a Madison Avenue ad executive. Lensed with flashy panache by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream), the film's comic-book version of reality depicts a hyper-stylized world where immersive advertising has been carried to a surreal, comically literal-minded extreme. A world populated almost exclusively by parentless, purposeless teens with nothing but disposable income and a fad-driven devotion to the almighty gods of Capitalism.
 
Its story sees us following the adventures of the titular small-town trio, a struggling female punk-pop group hastily recruited by oily Megarecords executive Wyatt Frame to be the anybody-will-do, last-ditch replacements for the recently-ditched boy band DuJour. Swept up in the world of instant fame and success, The Pussycats (now called Josie and the Pussycats thanks to a Diana Ross-esque ploy by Wyatt) have no idea they are really the unwitting pawns in a conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America through pop music. The scheme hatched by Megarecords CEO Fiona bears a slight resemblance to what the Future Villain Band (Aerosmith) had in mind for America’s youth in that other pop music movie bomb Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).
"They come and they go...pop stars." -  Performance (1970)
The soon-to-go boy band DuJour (Alexander Martin, Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, and Donald Faison) interviewed by Entertainment Tonight host Jann Carl


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Growing up, teen rock ‘n’ roll movies came in two varieties: One was the jukebox musical (Don’t Knock the Rock, Twist Around the Clock) aimed to promote rock and R & B while reassuring concerned (and racist) parents that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t going to corrupt their clean-cut kids and turn them into juvenile delinquents. The second was the musical fake-out (Bye, Bye Birdie, The Girl Can’t Help It): these films featured rock ‘n’ roll but their overall outlook was so condemnatory of teenagers and their music that they wound up being essentially anti-rock 'n' roll musicals. 
I had most of the songs from Josie and the Pussycats committed to memory by the time I got around to seeing the movie. The songs remind me of the '80s/'90s sound of Blondie, Josie Cotton, E.G. Daily, The Bangles, & The Go-Gos. Josie's vocals are by Kay Hanley, lead singer of the band Letters to Cleo

The music of Josie and the Pussycats isn't kidding around, but much of the film's humor is at the expense of teenagers and the kind of manufactured, by-the-numbers corporate pop that was clogging up the charts at the time.

Since I’ve never cared much for teenagerseven when I was oneand the ‘90s represented for me the very last decade of listenable music (I've turned into my Dad!)...Josie and the Pussycats' riotously scornful view of ad-susceptible adolescents and the assembly-line practices of the music business quickly became my favorite thing about the film. I liked the characters of Josie, Valerie, and Melody, a great deal...the relaxed chemistry between the actresses going a long way to making them a likable trio of heroines you could root for. Personal fave-rave Parker Posey walks off with each of her scenes, playing the power-mad music CEO like a high school bully.
But the minute I saw him remorselessly decide to let a boy band perish in a plane crash, I knew Alan Cummings' Wyatt Frame would be the character I'd most identify with. 
Fashion-forward Fiona and snide Wyatt scheming, scheming, scheming.
As is often the case with villains, Posey and Cummings are Josie's MVPs

Movies whose concept threatens to veer too close into corny, sincere, or sentimental territory often defuse the situation by featuring a character who serves as the surrogate voice of those audience members least willing to suspend their disbelief. In Josie and the Pussycats that character is Alexandra (Missi Pyle, who is absolutely priceless), a one-woman Greek chorus of wry put-downs, and possessor most of the film's funniest lines. 
Another means of keeping potential fluff afloat is to keep the action moving so fast, no dust of doubt has time to settle on anything. I'm convinced one of the reasons Josie and the Pussycats was so misunderstood on initial release was because so many of the jokey asides and visual gags flew over all those pre-adolescent heads. For example, it's my guess that few teens picked up on the film depicting the character of Alexander as gay (in the comics he's Melody's boyfriend) because none of the indicators were underlined: In one scene, when under the influence of subliminal brainwashing, Alexander blurts out he wants a vintage tee shirt and Heath Ledger. Later in the film, he lets out with a muffled "I love you, Les!" to the DuJour boy band member when he makes a surprise appearance.
Pussycats manager & wannabe music mogul Alexander Cabot reading the biography of gay music mogul David Geffen penned by openly-gay WSJ writer Tom King

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Where Josie and the Pussycats won me over and proved itself so persuasive as a cannily self-aware send-up of pop culture is in the way it established and sustained a consistent comedic tone and point of view throughout. The film strikes a chord combining the neo-nostalgia reinvention of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (We’re all new, just the way you remember us!) and the pop-group-makes-a-movie tropes virtually invented by Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (Slow-motion trampoline jumping! Success montages!). 
The Pussycats themselves arrive updated but unchanged. Appealing Rachael Leigh Cook assures Josie is still the sensible, charmingly nerdy redhead. Tara Reid keeps Melody’s sweet-natured optimism while subtly defanging the character’s archaic “dumb blonde” origins. And brainy Valerie is still perceptive & sardonic, but as embodied by Rosario Dawson, also drop-dead gorgeous.
To my dying day, I'll never understand how so many outraged grown-ass critics at the time failed to "get" that the film's blatantly exaggerated product placement was precisely the point. 

Since this film marks my first time seeing any of these actresses, for me, they ARE the real-life incarnation of The Pussycats and I can't imagine anyone else in the roles. But some fans—and with good reason—saw Dawson’s casting a problematic example of the filmmakers light-washing a Black character heretofore always depicted as being dark-skinned (Beyonce, Aaliyah, and Lisa Lopes lost out on the part, so it seems colorism was definitely on the casting menu). 
On a similar note, the character of Valerie is also ill-served by a story arc in the film that has Wyatt, in a divide-and-conquer move, singling her out for exclusion by constantly forgetting she’s around or part of the group.
Narratively, we get it: Wyatt wants Valerie gone because, as the smart one, she’s the one most likely to catch on to Fiona’s scheme. But since the erasure of Black women and women of color is common practice in Hollywood and the music industry (where the Black sound is coveted...but not from Black artists), it appears not to have occurred to anyone that with Dawson being the only lead ethnic character in the film, all these scenes have a slightly cringy subtext.
What's New, Pussycat?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’ve little doubt that a movie version of Josie and the Pussycats was green-lit for its franchise potential and marketability. In which case, I suppose its eventual decimation at the boxoffice could be looked upon as a kind of corporate hubris victory. But now that the film has gone on to find cult success, it's nice that instead of being celebrated for how much money it made for the industry fat cats (hee hee), Josie and the Pussycats can instead be championed for being a female-driven major motion picture about three women in the boy-centric world of rock 'n' roll who ultimately triumph because of their loving, dedicated friendship.
 And the whole "Be happy with yourself as you are" message isn't bad, either. 
"Jerkin!"

BONUS MATERIAL

The first human incarnation of Josie and the Pussycats was a trio of singers assembled, Monkees-style, to represent the fictional band on an LP and to provide the singing voices for the animated series. Left to right we have Patrice Holloway as Valerie, future Angel Cheryl Ladd (then Cherie Moor) as Melody, and Cathy Dougher as Josie. The character of Valerie almost didn't get the opportunity to make TV history as the first Black female main character in an animated series. It seems Hanna-Barbera wanted to make The Pussycats an all-white trio. The album's producer (Danny Janssen) refused to cooperate, leading to a three-week standoff during which time Hanna-Barbara came to their bigoted senses. 
In 2017 another flesh-and-blood Josie and the Pussycats materialized, this time in the TV series Riverdale and portrayed as a Black female trio. Left to right: Hayley Law as Valerie, Ashleigh Murray as Josie, and Asha Bromfield as Melody. I've never seen Riverdale, a position that's unlikely to change any time soon, but let me tell you I'm here for a Black Josie and the Pussycats.
Any and everything you could ever want to know about the making of Josie and the Pussycats is available in the remarkably thorough Josie and the Podcats. But watch out for subliminal messages!


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2020