Before Riverdale, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before Christopher Nolan Batman, before 9-11 even, there was a different type of comic book movie: JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. Inspired by the Archie comic book and Hanna-Barbera cartoon, writer/directors Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan told a goofy version of the little-rock-‘n-roll-band-tested-by-overnight-superstardom story.
Actually maybe we should forget about comics and consider this timeline: it was a year before American Idol started. The Spice Girls had packed it up the year before. NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were still popular. The movie seems to offer the Pussycats as a refreshing alternative for teenage girls to obsess over instead of boy bands, but it should be noted that Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, Brandy, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, Pink, and Aaliyah (plus Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson) all had hits that year. But I guess the Pussycats do stand out by playing instruments. Their songs are kind of sassy pop punk, not good in my opinion but not as intolerable as some in-movie music.
It’s a formulaic story. Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook, GET CARTER remake), Valerie (Rosario Dawson, DEATH PROOF) and Melody (Tara Reid, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER) play guitar/lead vocals, bass, and drums, respectively in their unsigned band The Pussycats, struggling through unattended shows at bowling alleys and shit. Even their manager Alexander (Paulo Costanzo, SPLINTER) and his hanger-on sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle, GONE GIRL) don’t seem to be very loyal fans, and Josie can’t seem to cross the border out of the Friend Zone with her dorky folk singer crush Alan M (Gabriel Mann, CHERRY FALLS). Then they’re spotted by MegaRecords asshole Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming, also in the GET CARTER remake, as well as SPICE WORLD) who’s looking for the next big thing, having recently orchestrated a plane crash for his popular boy band Du Jour after they discovered a plot to hide subliminal messages in their music.
So the Pussycats (renamed Josie and the Pussycats) get pushed as huge stars, and are in the awkward position of living their dreams while having a funny feeling they haven’t earned it yet. Of course they face sensitivities about Josie being shoved into the spotlight, and they get mad at each other, but ultimately discover the conspiracy and make up as friends and as a band and play the big concert and get the boy (who declares his love to Josie while being body-passed) and all that.
What makes it a good movie, besides the pleasing, square likability and light humor of Archie Comics, is a well executed satirical message about consumerism and pop music. MegaRecords head Fiona (Parker Posey, BLADE TRINITY) reveals a secret underground headquarters where professional tastemakers decide the latest trends in fashion and slang and promote products to children through hidden messages recorded by the voice of Mr. Movie Fone (excellent dated reference), manipulating them to buy shit and then lose interest and then buy something else, all in the name of the economy. (Actually Fiona doesn’t exactly explain it – she plays an educational video about it, hosted by Eugene Levy.)
That theme explains the movie’s setting in kind of a casual dystopia where corporate logos are everywhere and no one ever comments on it. The whole city (downtown Riverdale? I’m not sure) looks like Times Square, but with giant advertisements for crap like Bugles and America Online.
In the opening scene, Du Jour are in their private jet, which is decorated on the inside with giant Target logos. I love how they have random products like liquid dish detergent and fabric softener on display as if they’re trophies or museum artifacts.
Later, when the Pussycats are put up in a fancy hotel, Josie’s room is decorated with a Revlon theme, Valerie’s has Target and Melody’s has McDonalds. This is what a McDonalds branded hotel shower looks like, if you’re wondering:
Also that would be an amazing movie still to stumble across out of context.
Like TALLADEGA NIGHTS, they didn’t get paid for any of the logos and had to get permission to use them, knowing that it was much more effective to use familiar companies from the real world than some dumb made up ones. But as has happened with some other movies, apparently certain knuckleheads criticized this as if it were sincere product placement and would be more likely to brainwash teens into buying Bounce fabric softener than to communicate its explicit point that this sort of rampant commercialism is gross and uncool. I don’t understand people who don’t understand this shit. But I know their hearts are in the right place.
I love the intentionally crass use of corporate logos, and it’s a good example of the movie’s not-what-I-expected humor. There’s also a crazy scene where Valerie and Melody are invited to be on MTV’s Total Request Live, but when they get there the whole set and everybody on it are just flat wooden cutouts. A guy (Aries Spears, SNOOP DOGG’S HOOD OF HORROR) comes out and introduces himself as Carson Daly, but they know he’s not Carson Daly. Then the real Carson Daly comes out, and the two men reveal that they’re part of the conspiracy to brainwash children into buying products, so they try to kill the two Pussycats.
So yes, this is one of the only movies where Carson Daly, playing himself, tries to beat Tara Reid to death with a baseball bat, and she escapes by knocking him unconscious with a wooden cutout of Matt Damon. This seems slightly less random after reading that Reid and Daly were engaged at the time, but it’s still strange. If you’re wondering, no, they do not reveal that Carson Daly was being mind controlled. He did it on his own accord, apparently.
I know Reid is kind of shunned now and is just in SHARKNADO movies and shit, so it’s nice that she gets alot of laughs as the space cadet Pussycat. In fact, I think she has the funniest line, after an apologetic Josie wishes she could go back in time to undo her diva behavior.
This is more expected, but sometimes they do little meta/fourth-wall-violation type jokes, like when somebody asks Alexandra why being the manager’s sister means she gets to go on tour with them.
“I’m here because I was in the comic book.”
Bit part alert: SEE NO EVIL 2 directors the Soska twins apparently are extras playing fans, 8 years before they became directors. I think they’re probly just in the crowd with hundreds of other Canadian teens and probly can’t be spotted, but while looking for them I noticed this scene which I believe features their frequent leading lady Katharine Isabelle. In interviews the Soskas say they were excited to meet her on set because they were fans of GINGER SNAPS.
Also of note: Darren Aranofsky’s regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot this the year after REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. It’s not as arty, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
This and CAN’T HARDLY WAIT (which I remember not thinking was good, but I know people of a certain age hold on to it) are the only directorial works by Elfont & Kaplan, but they also wrote A VERY BRADY SEQUEL, THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS, SURVIVING CHRISTMAS, MADE OF HONOR and LEAP YEAR. I hope they consider this one a feather in their caps.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.