Totally Jerking Case File #147: Josie And The Pussycats

Totally Jerking Case File #147: Josie And The Pussycats

At some point in the ’90s, pop culture was suddenly taken over by a plague of creepily interchangeable teenagers with symmetrical facial hair and robotically synchronized dance moves peddling antiseptic R&B and bland ballads. They were joined in this cultural invasion by a dead-eyed, jailbait pop strumpet named Britney Spears who combined strong Christian values with a heroic commitment to providing masturbatory fodder.

There was something not quite human about these pre-fabricated pop icons: They appeared to be the product of a bizarre cloning experiment. Who were these people? Where did they come from? How had our culture gone from the authenticity-obsessed, punk-derived ethos of grunge and the nebulous entity known as “alternative rock” to this defiantly synthetic robot music over the course of just a few years? How had we devolved from In Utero to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” in just three years? Why was every new pop star seemingly an alumnus of a late-’80s/early-’90s incarnation of The Mickey Mouse Club

The answer, of course, is that these groups and pop tarts were the brainchild of Lou Pearlman, a morbidly obese cousin of Art Garfunkel, world-class con artist, and fixture of the Florida Republican Party who established a boy-band empire at least partially as a way to launder the millions he made running a series of fraudulent blimp companies. Seriously. 

2001’s Josie And The Pussycats, today’s ill-fated My Year Of Flops entry, proposed a much more plausible answer: Bands like its Backstreet Boys surrogate Du Jour (of “Backdoor Lover” fame) were the product of a sinister government program to pump money into the economy by putting subliminal messages into inane pop songs designed to get impressionable, weak-minded teens to spend their allowances on the hottest new fad. It was an awfully satirical slant for a feature-film adaptation of an Archie spin-off/Hanna-Barbera cartoon/1970s bubblegum group, the lattermost featuring a young Cheryl Ladd. To the film’s detractors, of which there were many, it must have looked like writer-directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan were hurling rocks at their satirical targets from an awfully translucent house. 

Wasn’t a major-studio adaptation of Josie And The Pussycats, complete with a high-profile major-label soundtrack album, a product of the very bubblegum pop world it spoofed? Like many underrated satires, Josie And The Pussycats could easily be mistaken for its satirical subject. That Josie internalized and perfected the flashy, ADD-addled, rapid-cut MTV aesthetic it cheekily sent up made it either doubly subversive or deeply hypocritical. 

After all, the makers of Josie And The Pussycats did not go the Rock ’N’ Roll High School route and hire, say, The Donnas to play the leads and perform their own songs. They hired a trio of actresses (or, more accurately, two actresses and Tara Reid) to play the Pussycats, then had Kay Hanley, the former lead singer of Letters To Cleo, sing lead vocals for songs co-written by a murderer’s row of seasoned professionals like That Dog’s Anna Waronker, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (who also produced the film, executive-produced the soundtrack, and has a funny cameo in a Behind The Music spoof as The Captain and Tennille’s quickly discarded, long-forgotten third member, “The Chief”) and Fountain Of Wayne and Ivy’s Adam Schlesinger, the go-to guy for filmmakers looking for a smart, savvy songwriter-producer skilled at creating pastiches in a variety of genres.

In a nifty bit of misdirection, Josie And The Pussycats opens by focusing on characters that disappear for much of the film: a boy band named Du Jour played with tongue-in-cheek relish by Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Seth Green, and Alexander Martin. This opening scene establishes one of the film’s most ubiquitous and hilarious running gags: the presence of logos for popular corporations in nearly every scene. According to IMDB.com the film prominently features the logos of 73 companies. To the film’s critics there was no real difference between that ironic (non-compensated) product placement and the real deal: a Starbucks logo in a film directed at teenagers was a Starbucks logo, whether it was real product placement or part of an elaborate, wall-to-wall parody of the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon. 

A year after Naomi Klein released her seminal anti-globalization/branding manifesto No Logo, Josie And The Pussycats depicted a world that was all logos, where corporations and their marketing divisions wheedled their way into every aspect of American life. In Josie And The Pussycats nothing is safe from branding; even Tara Reid’s shower boasts a McDonald’s logo for no discernible reason. The most omnipresent of these logos is the Target bullseye. This is not at all coincidental: In Josie And The Pussycats’ corporate dystopia, everyone is targeted by advertising and commercials.

The all-too-brief Du Jour sequence has enormous fun with one of the biggest, easiest targets in pop culture: boy bands. In this clip, Seth Green homes in on one of the silliest, most pervasive features of boy-band iconography: the “cool” facial expressions teen idols adopt that alternately make them look constipated or in the throes of a powerful orgasm. Du Jour are such creatures of showbiz that they even wear those goofy cordless microphones when they’re offstage. 

Dripping yuppie disdain for the malleable pretty boys he transforms into disposable pop stars, Alan Cumming plays Du Jour’s manager/Svengali and a key player in a vast conspiracy to brainwash America’s youth. When a member of Du Jour begins to suspect that outside forces may be planting messages in their music, Cumming parachutes out of the band’s private plane (festooned, appropriately enough, with Target logos) along with the pilot, leaving the band to die a lucrative rock-star death.

When Cumming first spies The Pussycats—levelheaded lead singer Rachel Leigh Cook, down-to-earth, insanely hot bassist Rosario Dawson, and space cadet drummer Tara Reid—it’s commerce at first sight. A cash register ca-chings happily inside Cumming’s mind as the telegenic trio cross the street. A dizzy montage takes the band from obscurity to super-stardom. 

Josie And The Pussycats repeatedly serves up the joyful clichés of rock-’n’-roll movies only to subvert them, as when the rocketing-to-über-fame montage is immediately followed by Cook coming to her senses and wondering aloud, “Does anyone else think it’s strange all this happened in a week?” only to plop obliviously down on a bed alongside her bandmates and gush, “No!” 

A sometimes embarrassingly over-the-top Parker Posey, channeling Norma Desmond, plays the head of Josie And The Pussycats’ label. She’s a power- and status-mad lunatic in league with the government to create a never-ending series of trends and fads for gullible kids through subliminal messages. Ah, but why should I explain how this conspiracy works when Eugene Levy can do that for me?

In the film’s secret history of pop music, the entire mythology of self-destructive rock stars is an elaborate cover for the government’s use of subliminal messages. When pop stars become cognizant that they’re just tools in an evil plot directed at teenagers, they mysteriously die in plane crashes, overdose, or go insane. Why, there’s even a highly rated television program devoted to these cunning and convincing cover stories: Behind The Music. 

Re-watching Josie And The Pussycats was like traveling back in time to 2001, a more innocent time when Backstreet Boys ruled the radio, Behind The Music had everyone riveted, and MTV’s Total Request Live represented the white-hot epicenter of youth culture. TRL provided a fascinating window into the mindless hysteria of the teenybopper universe: The reanimated corpse of Josef Mengele could have popped by to plug his latest project and the crowd could be counted upon to greet him with the sobbing, frenzied clapping and over-the-top enthusiasm that accompanied the appearance of everyone on the show. 

TRL host Carson Daly appears as himself, only in the film’s alternate pop universe he is, in his own words, “a key player in this whole conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America with pop music” and a sociopath who desperately wants to bash Reid’s skull in with a baseball bat so she won’t be able to sabotage the conspiracy. Then again, maybe Daly wasn’t playing an alternate-universe Carson Daly; maybe he really was just playing his real self. 

Reid has the world’s smallest range: She’s qualified to play everything from a dullard to a half-wit to someone who’s, quite frankly, not terribly bright. So she’s perfectly cast as a woman who blurs the line between charmingly daft and mentally challenged, and who dispenses Ralph Wiggum-style non-sequiturs like, “If I could go back in time I’d want to meet Snoopy.” 

The government/pop-culture conspiracy uses subliminal messages—delivered, deliciously enough, by Don LaFontaine, the famed film-trailer voiceover guy, a voice we can all trust in a time of danger, in a world gone mad, in a realm in need of heroes—to sow seeds of discord within Josie And The Pussycats, furtively convincing Cook that she’s the real star of the group and can happily shed the dead weight of her overshadowed bandmates. 

The members of Du Jour—who have survived their plane crash only to be beaten mercilessly after landing in the parking lot of a Metallica concert—make a triumphant return late in the film to join forces with Josie And The Pussycats and destroy the subliminal message machine, which the government no longer needs since they’ve discovered a much more effective way of smuggling subliminal messages: through movies like Josie And The Pussycats. In the grand tradition of rock movies, Josie ends with a live performance in which the audience lustily embraces the performers for exactly who they are.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s satire; this is most assuredly not Dr. Strangelove. But the filmmakers winningly channel the spirits of Frank Tashlin and Joe Dante, giddy post-modern filmmakers at once in love with the zippy vulgarity of pop culture and deeply cynical of the crass consumerism underlying much of it.

Early in the film, Cumming encounters a goth wearing a Siouxsie And The Banshees T-shirt who sneers at the pop pabulum forced down everyone’s throats. Cumming professes to be delighted to encounter a genuine non-conformist, then has her snatched away in a van in front of an ominous MTV.com logo. It’s a gag that disingenuously flatters the audience, assuring them that they, like the sneering goth, are above being brainwashed when the Siouxsie Sioux fan is every bit as conformist as Du Jour fanatics; she just swears allegiance to a different tribe.  

Josie may not be a pure, perfect, or uncompromised film, but it is funny, clever, and sweet. Elfont and Kaplan delivered the edgiest live-action Josie And The Pussycats possible, but it’s still, you know, a live-action adaptation of a comic book designed to sell tickets and ancillary merchandise (like the presumably subliminal-message-free soundtrack) in addition to teaching young people to be more skeptical and cynical about the messages they’re bombarded with. Undoubtedly the single most ambitious, subversive, and satirical feature-film adaptation of an Archie comic, Josie And The Pussycats gives us a sly, sustained spoof of consumerism, infectious pop songs, and cute girls in tight pants. What’s not to like? 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success 

More My Year Of Flops