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|
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 Pussycats—hyped 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 interest—sold 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.
|Missi Pyle and Paulo Costanzo as siblings Alexandra & Alexander Cabot|
In the Bedroom
|"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
|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.
|Pussycats manager & wannabe music mogul Alexander Cabot reading the biography of gay music mogul David Geffen penned by openly-gay WSJ writer Tom King|
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).
|What's New, Pussycat?|
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.