Critic’s Notebook: Misunderstood upon its release, ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ was ahead of its time
“Lame.” “Off-putting.” “Spectacularly bad.”
Movie critics were not kind to “Josie and the Pussycats” when it came out in 2001.
Based on the fantasy girl group from the old Archie comics, the film sought to bring singer-guitarist Josie McCoy and her friends (who’d also been the subjects of an early-’70s cartoon) into the age of ’N Sync and MTV’s “Total Request Live.”
Rachael Leigh Cook, fresh off her success in the teen hit “She’s All That,” donned a pair of fuzzy cat ears to play Josie, while a strong supporting cast featured Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid (as the Pussycats) and Alan Cumming and Parker Posey (as conniving record execs out to exploit the band).
Even so, audiences responded about as enthusiastically as reviewers, with “Josie” earning back less than half of its reported $39 million production budget, according to Box Office Mojo.
The failure “took us out of the movie industry,” Deborah Kaplan, who directed along with Harry Elfont, recently told BuzzFeed News.
Yet “Josie and the Pussycats” quietly stuck around.
The film’s soundtrack, with songs composed by a dream team of ’90s power-pop pros, went gold. And though it convinced few at the time, “Josie’s” sharply satirical vision of the hyper-commercial record industry feels only more relevant at a moment when Taylor Swift’s face can be seen on the side of UPS delivery trucks.
“It’s almost the ‘Idiocracy’ version of the music business,” said Anna Waronker of That Dog, one of those power-pop pros, comparing “Josie” to Mike Judge’s bleakly prescient political comedy from 2006.
Now, timed to — what else? — a new product launch, this enduring cult favorite is getting a second push from some of its creators.
To promote the release of a vinyl edition of the “Josie” soundtrack, the movie will be screened Tuesday evening at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where Kaplan, Elfont and several cast members (including Cook and Reid) are scheduled to appear for a Q&A session.
But the main event for “Josie” believers is sure to be a one-off live concert that night in which Kay Hanley of the Boston band Letters to Cleo, who provided Josie’s singing voice in the movie, will perform the film’s songs with backing from some of the musicians who played on the album.
Asked how it’s been to revisit tunes like “3 Small Words” and “Pretend to Be Nice” after a decade and a half, Hanley described the rehearsal process as “100% joy.”
“I love these songs — they’re so fun,” she added, and indeed the crisp, hooky music holds up against anything by period acts such as That Dog and Fountains of Wayne (whose Adam Schlesinger was another writer on the soundtrack).
“The energy they give me is just so pure.”
Hanley recalled the experience of recording Josie’s vocals for the movie — a gig she got through her friend Dave Gibbs of the Gigolo Aunts, who’d moved from Boston to L.A. and befriended Kaplan and Elfont — with equal enthusiasm.
She’d worked in movies before: In 1999, Letters to Cleo appeared in “10 Things I Hate about You,” the high-school-set “Taming of the Shrew” update starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger.
“But for this I was being hired as a vocalist outside the band,” she said. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe someone’s paying me to sing.’”
Not only that, but she was being paid to do it with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, the hit-making studio wizard who served as the soundtrack’s executive producer. Hanley said she learned an “incredible” amount from Babyface about music and about an industry then flush with cash from CD sales but which would soon undergo radical change thanks to the spread of digital file-sharing.
Looking back today, the threat of that imminent crisis seems to propel “Josie and the Pussycats,” which lampoons the idea of branding and product placement by putting corporate logos in virtually every scene; the movie is accurately predicting a future in which labels and musicians — even those not on “TRL” — will move beyond selling albums as a means of making money.
“At the time it was anathema to form these alliances with corporations,” Hanley said of an era when the perception of “indie cred” mattered. “Now you get the record deal and you have hits so that you can get the Nokia deal. It’s wild.”
For all its expertly rendered cynicism about the business of music, “Josie” is deeply earnest about music itself — about the drive to make it as well as the love that fans feel for it.
Early in the movie, before Josie and the Pussycats have been signed by Mega Records (and unwittingly enlisted in a government mind-control conspiracy), we see the band members playing happily in an empty bowling alley — they’re giving their all despite the fact that nobody’s listening.
And, sure, the film later depicts Josie’s audience as a bunch of brain-washed victims. But what pop obsessive doesn’t recognize the feeling of powerlessness that a great song can exert on a listener?
As the star of the movie, Cook said she saw an opportunity to flesh out a character that was very thinly drawn in its original incarnation.
“Josie’s a young woman who’s ambitious and passionate about music and loves her friends,” she said. “But that was about it as far as the comics ever got it. So it was up to us to really make her three-dimensional” — to show why Josie wants to be in a band and what it means to her, which the movie makes real progress toward between all the jokes about Clearasil and Carson Daly.
Cook added that she thinks of the role in connection with two other “iconic” parts she played not long before “Josie”: Mary Anne Spier in an adaptation of “The Baby Sitter’s Club” and Becky Thatcher in Disney’s take on “Tom and Huck.”
“The fact that within six years I got to be those three characters that people have a lot of expectations about — that’s pretty damn cool,” she said.
Hanley, who went on to compose for children’s TV, views her work on “Josie and the Pussycats” in a larger context too — in her case as the bookend to a “magical period” in the mid-’90s when smart, female-led rock groups like Letters to Cleo, the Breeders and Veruca Salt were “on the radio and headlining festivals and making music that seemed like it counted.”
Like “Josie,” though, that’s an idea coming back to life in a newly visible way, said Hanley, who pointed to the emergence of young acts such as Speedy Ortiz and Charly Bliss.
“It’s so exciting that that’s happening again,” she said. “The hair on my arms is standing on end just talking about it.”
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“Josie and the Pussycats” with Kay Hanley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway
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