If there’s ever one movie that falls under the “criminally underrated” category, it’s the 2001 outing Josie and the Pussycats. I was only 12 years old when it was released, but I recall my sister and I being obsessed with this film. We had the dolls and blasted the soundtrack on the regular.
Of course, I grew up watching the incredibly short-lived 1970 animated show of the same name based on the Archie Comics series. I was always tickled to see a character called Melody. There aren’t that many of us in film and TV, so I take what I can.
Josie and the Pussycats was a formative movie for me. Not just because it debuted during my formative years, but it sparked that desire to pursue an artistic career. Fun fact: I also sing. I started singing on stage when I was three. Only a few years before I dove down the writing rabbit hole by creating illustrated stories about fairies on spiral notebook paper. Like Josie, I harbored dreams of rock stardom.
Even though I was a young whippersnapper, I knew Josie and the Pussycats was ahead of its time. A satire that poked fun at the music industry and its hold over youth culture somehow managed to soar over people’s heads. If you check out reviews on its IMDb page dating back to when it premiered, you’ll see poignantly astute remarks including but not limited to: “dumbest movie of all time” and “awful, awful, awful.”
Thankfully, those reviews evolved over the years. My humble opinion? Josie and the Pussycats rocks hard.
The nitty-gritty deets
Josie and the Pussycats was written and directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont. It stars Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie McCoy, Rosario Dawson as Valerie Brown and Tara Reid as Melody Valentine. They’re a rock trio who hail from Riverdale. Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) discovers the girls after his latest act, boy band DuJour, tragically perishes in a plane crash. He needs a new, totally jerkin’ musical sensation to placate his boss, Fiona (Parker Posey), the eccentric head of Mega Records.
Wyatt helps launch Josie and her pals into the rock stratosphere after only a week of being signed by the record label. Initially, they find the whole shebang to be a little suspect, but what can be better than fame? They’re mobbed by insatiable, overly obsessive fans who aspire to be just like them, down to donning the same outfits and hairstyles as the band.
Next, we learn that Mega Records is actually working in conjunction with the government to send subliminal messages through music to influence the youth of America. You know, to bolster the economy by persuading them to buy frivolous things with their babysitting money. Valerie and Melody start questioning everything, so Wyatt and Fiona attempt to sick their murderous goons on them.
Of course, it’ll be framed to look like an accident. Why do you think DuJour died in that crash? They questioned the inexplicable, underlying tracks in their music. Side note: apparently Mr. Moviefone is the voice behind those messages.
So, they try to separate Josie from her friends. She’s forced to listen to a CD (kids, those are what we had prior to streaming and Spotify) that plants a persuasive bug in her ear. Josie doesn’t need anyone — she carries the band on her back. She should have a solo career! This drives a wedge between Josie and her buddies.
Thankfully, in the end, Josie learns the truth and proceeds to kick major ass with Val and Mel by her side. She manages to get the guy, Alan M. (Gabriel Mann) a.k.a. Alec N. a.k.a. Adam 12. Full disclosure: I also dated a dude with a soul patch. His style was uncannily similar to Alan’s in the movie. Hey, it was the aughts. I’m not proud.
Not to mention, Josie and the Pussycats put on a rockin’ show at a massive concert venue without the subliminal messaging and the swanky pussycat headphones. People learn to enjoy their music without the government’s weighty influence. As Josie aptly states (and I’m paraphrasing here), you can decide for yourself.
The (not subliminal) messaging
Now, I think that’s the crux of Josie and the Pussycats: think for yourself. Be your own person. Paulo Costanzo‘s character, Alexander Cabot, remarks that instead of “trying to be cool,” we should embrace who we are. Wholeheartedly. Mind you, this was early 2001. Twenty years later, we’re still grappling with deviating from societal norms and marching to the beat of our own drums. The messaging is spot on.
I’d be remiss if I left out the incessant product placement* splattered throughout the movie. In the opening scene, we see the members of DuJour (Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Seth Green and Alexander Martin) boarding a plane that’s a walking advertisement.
There are Target ads, tubes of Crest toothpaste and Tide laundry detergent. When they ask Wyatt why their music sounds strange, he surreptitiously disembarks the plane with the pilot and leaves them to die. But DuJour survived! Because DuJour means “seatbelts”!
The product placement is everywhere. One bit of continuity I dig is the Mr. Peanut logo that’s in a scene featuring Valerie and Melody as Carson Daly, the then host of the now-defunct TRL (RIP), is dispatched to kill them. Then, in the following scene, we see Alan M. performing at a seedy pub for an open mic night. There’s that damn Mr. Peanuts logo discreetly placed behind his head. It’s brilliant on every level.
It’s interesting watching how the teens are affected when they listen to Josie and the Pussycats or DuJour. You see them instantly turn on a dime, quickly moving from one “fad” to another. Pink is the new orange! No, blue is the new orange! The color schemes for the fans change depending on the message they’re being served. Melody, who’s a vegetarian, boldly claims that she’s craving a Big Mac. Diet Coke is the new Pepsi! Ditch those pink shoes because, ew. It’s all about red now.
In the end, Fiona’s big message at the climax of the movie is that she’s cool. We see that she exerts a ton of effort into looking effortlessly cool. Even Wyatt admits that he’s really “White-Ass Wally,” a kid that was severely picked on in school. The pair really wanted to convince their haters that they were the real deal.
Popularity, especially during your formative years, was a massive issue back then. I recall being a victim of the social pecking order myself. Even today, being “popular” is a priority.
Josie and the Pussycats explored a common belief in music — that subliminal messages can be heard in the tunes we listen to, notably rock music. Dating back to the 1960s and The Beatles, “backmasking” is the process of recording a message backward on a track that’s meant to be played forward. Fiona and Mega Records took advantage of said process.
When it comes down to it, it’s the music industry. Show business. Josie and the Pussycats satirizes the industry’s money-hungry practices.
Josie and the Pussycats occasionally breaks the fourth wall. From Alan Cumming “Jim-ing” the camera to the government’s desire to spread subliminal messaging via movies (Josie and the Pussycats is the greatest movie ever! Join the Army!), it enjoys acknowledging its audience.
Additionally, I love the nods to the comics. For example, when Alexander Cabot asks his sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle) why she’s there, she mentions that she’s “in the comics.” Wyatt mentions that our core trio could branch out into comics, a movie, a cartoon and beyond — all of which are part of the actual Josie and the Pussycats brand.
Not to mention, the satirizing of America’s obsession with boy bands. Admittedly, I was and still am an avid listener of NSYNC. I understand the overzealous behavior when it comes to teens and boy bands. Of course, this can be traced back to The Beatles when they first arrived in the US. Side note: DuJour’s song “Backdoor Lover” never made sense to me until I was older. Now, I think it’s genius.
The fashion and the Kay Hanley!
Here’s another heartfelt confession from yours truly: I would wear the clothes showcased in Josie and the Pussycats today. I adored the fashion and style back then, but I still think it kicks ass today. Give me all the body glitter. The luminescent makeup. The shiny lip gloss. Those handkerchief tops! Just give me a sec to make sure my chunky layers are perfectly flipped out like Josie’s. To me, this film epitomizes early aughts fashion.
If you’re a fan of Letters to Cleo, you may recognize the singing voice for Josie. Kay Hanley makes that soundtrack. Her vocals perfectly suit Josie’s pop-punk princess ‘tude. All hail Hanley for elevating this film to icon status with just her voice. In fact, I’m jamming out to the soundtrack as I type this article. I’m a method writer.
Three small words: DuJour means “friendship”!
So, if you love Josie and the Pussycats, I see you. I hear you. It’s a pitch-perfect satire that’s just as resonant today as it was 20 years ago. The performances are fantastic (Hello, Alan Cumming and Parker Posey), the soundtrack kicks ass and the jokes are clever. It’s a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously while managing to address relevant societal issues. That’s a hard line to walk. Not to mention, it doesn’t “dumb down” its female leads and make them damsels in distress of any sort.
It’s all about the music. The friendship. The Adam 12. And when the going gets tough, the tough makes lemonade!
*Please note that I’m not endorsing any of the products mentioned in this piece. But if you feel compelled to buy red shoes because I think they’re cool, then that’s on you.
This article was originally published on 4/11/21
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