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Film Review: Josie and the Pussycats

Josie and the Pussycats (2001; Directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan)

I would like to preface this overlong consideration of a mostly silly, disposable, and forgotten candy-coated teen-comedy flop by contextualizing the terms of its peculiar appeal to me. Josie and the Pussycats, a fundamentally flawed but spirited and occasionally quite funny Hollywood adaptation of an Archie Comics sub-property, was an unlikely but hallowed in-joke among my group of friends in university. Drinking nights often climaxed with giddy screenings of a VHS copy of the movie (alcohol greatly improved its dumb-clever humour). Dialogue quotations became part of everyday parlance (“Jerkin’!”; “You slept with him!“; the astoundingly dated “Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon!”). When a member of the circle and his band played their first show, a handmade sign reading “I’m with the band” was made up and their set-opener was a cover of opening credits rocker “3 Small Words”. Josie was central to our shared consciousness for a brief but important part of our youth; it was our theme movie. But why?

Box office returns, critical reception, and longer-term movie nerd assessments were not at all kind to Josie and the Pussycats. It still has its defenders, but it’s become a bit of a time capsule film, capturing a particular moment in American popular culture where bubblegum pop was ascendant, resistance to monolithic corporate capitalism still seemed faintly possible with just a guitar and three small chords, and Tara Reid could get a non-Sharknado central role in a feature film (she’s golden here, by the way, probably never better: “If I could go back in time, I would want to meet Snoopy”).

But viewed across the space of years, Josie and the Pussycats seems more weirdly, obscurely talismanic, like one of the representative artifacts of a vanished human culture collected from a post-apocalyptic landscape by a plucky, romantic archivist robot. Fluff it may be, but it’s fluff that targets the will to conformity of consumer capitalism with a surprisingly-sharp satirical blade, while its remedy to that conformity inadvertently exposes resistance as a form of re-entrenchment of the conformist order’s aims and goals.

Jettisoning any and all story elements of the original comics, writers/directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (their resume previously included appreciated teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, which receives an in-joke shout-out in the film, and subsequently featured script credits on some pretty forgettable rom-coms) craft the adventures of this perky garage band of cat-ear-wearing young ladies into a zippy and comprehensive indictment of America’s corporatized assembly line of fame and celebrity.

The film opens not with the Pussycats at all, but with pitch-perfect boy band parody Du Jour (cameos by Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Seth Green, and Alex Martin). After performing in a sugary (but not-so-subtly raunchy) music video sending up the Backstreet Boys’ mega-hit “I Want It That Way”, the group lounges and bickers amusingly on their private jet in the company of their svengali manager, Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming, exquisitely louche). But when the pop idols confront Wyatt with something strange buried in the mix of their latest single, he grows dead-serious. Signalling the pilot with a music-history code phrase (“Take the Chevy to the Levy”), Wyatt parachutes out of the crashing jet. Having apparently silenced his potentially insurrectionist superstars, he’s on the lookout for replacements.

Enter the titular Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook, at the peak of her brief popularity and comic-actress powers) and her supporting Pussycats, Melody (Reid) and Valentine (Rosario Dawson), a power trio plying their musical trade unappreciated in a bowling alley in small-town Riverdale. Discovered by Wyatt while busking (or, rather, while he nearly runs them over in the middle of the street), the Pussycats are fed into the MegaRecords star machine run by the flighty, capricious, hilariously megalomaniacal Fiona (Parker Posey). Spirited away to a glowing NYC-type metropolis of oversaturated corporate advertising (more on that in a sec), the Pussycats experience the frantic head-rush of the entertainment industry as well as its fracturing ego-stroking fantasies. Furthermore, they learn what exactly it was that Du Jour discovered that was too dangerous to be allowed to get out: pop music is being used to brainwash teenagers into consumerist conformity.

Well, of course it is, a cynical, ironically detached observer like yours truly would say. But Elfont and Kaplan simultaneously literalize and metaphoricize this message. MegaRecords is the focal point of a vast conspiracy between corporations and government (even including Reid’s then-boyfriend Carson Daly, who cameos on a fake Total Request Live set as an enforcer of the secret order) to re-program American teens into consuming the products and adopting the lifestyles that the powers-that-be want them to via “subliminal” messages hidden deep in the audio mix of hit pop songs (which, as Roger Ebert pointed out, technically makes them subaural; they are recorded by Mr. Moviefone, another time-capsule joke par excellence). Fiona and a government agent (Tom Butler) demonstrate the process to foreign dignitaries via a cut-up educational infomercial featuring Eugene Levy, and like the best satire it’s only a slightly exaggerrated re-casting of corporate capitalism’s actual youth-focused marketing practices.

And yet it’s not quite the best satire. Rendering the film’s critique of consumer culture as a shadowy high-level tinfoil-hat conspiracy (and one driven and ultimately co-opted by its masterminds’ own youthful social inadequacies) inevitably dulls its edges. The key point to understand about American capitalism at the turn of the millenium is how openly and shameslessly it had come to apply its devious manipulations to consumer agency and socioeconomic choice. It need not operate in the shadows at all. Contemporary television hits like Making the Band and American Idol showed quirky individuality being made over into polished, mass-consumable entertainment product before viewers’ very eyes, and consumers ate it up.

Josie and the Pussycats becomes mired in an untenable position of criticizing the exact segment of mainstream popular culture that economic concerns require it to appeal to; it lampoons the empty flash and superficial shimmer of teenybopper music, film, television, and fashion while aiming straight at that same demographic, relying on their dollars for its box-office success. No wonder it failed to find much of an audience. The rise-to-stardom montage of “Pretend To Be Nice” typifies this problem: Elfont and Kaplan can’t decide if they want to laugh at the blinding sheen of celebrity culture or celebrate its peppy, frantic glamour, and so the film defaults to the latter.

This encouraged critical misreadings, especially of the deluge of corporate logos and product placement that drown the film onscreen (the Pussycats’ hotel room is designed entirely of retail giant Target’s red-and-white logo scheme, for example). Elfont and Kaplan revealed in the DVD commentary track (which I have absolutely listened to, thank you very much) that they did not receive a cent for product placement and that the saturation-level visual cascade of corporate advertising was intended as a satire of the similar cascade that buries American public life. Few observers understood it this way (as the Rotten Tomatoes summary of the critical consensus makes crystal-clear), underlining the hobbled irony of the focus on the concept of subliminal advertising when so much of the film’s critique of advertising was rather more superliminal.

Making the Pussycats’ hit songs the sort of melodically appealing power-pop confections that music geeks feel ought to be hugely popular with young audiences (but never are) probably didn’t help the film overcome the feeling of being misbegotten, either. This doesn’t mean the music isn’t good, and the soundtrack album proved more popular than the movie, going gold. Exec-produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds with vocals by Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley, the songs that make up the soundtrack were co-penned by a who’s who of late ’90s power-pop songwriters, including Matthew Sweet, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. This is not a vital critical observation, necessarily, but that last sentence was maybe the most Nineties sentence ever, so I couldn’t resist including it.

Josie and the Pussycats is not a great movie, and it’s arguably not even really a good one. In addition to the clumsy contradictions already mentioned, there’s metric tons of unnecessary detritus on display, including multiple superfluous characters from the comic (Josie’s sensitive balladeer love interest Alan M as well as band manager Alexander Cabot and his mean-spirited sister Alexandra, who is at least given a self-aware meta-line acknowledging her needless presence). But its central failure fatally wounds its grander satirical project. During the band’s climactic stadium concert, Josie exhorts her robotic hordes of corporate-programmed fans to remove the kitty ear headsets that deliver brainwashing messages into their collective cortex. She asks them to think for themselves and decide if they like her band’s music or not.

As Andrew Potter has convincingly argued, this essential post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment appeal to individuality and self-determination has been co-opted by corporations in order to sell their mass-marketed products and the attendant mainstream conformity that comes with them. This final twist in the complexly misdirected satirical thrust of Josie and the Pussycats exemplifies its internal ironies. But then those ironies, those animating contradictions, are also those of American capitalism. This may not be a great movie, but it both intentionally and inadvertently lays out the essential schizophrenic nature of corporate consumerism more clearly than many finer satires.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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