07 July 2020

Because I Streamed It: Josie and the Pussycats!

That's right. I want to take a minute on your Independence Day Weekend to talk about one of the greatest films of all time. This is visionary directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's Josie and the Pussycats (2001). This has been burning a hole in my brain for some time now. Are you ready for critical mega-reevaluation? It's time.

And not one hairball!

There are a few films that never quite reach cult status despite me personally loving them to death. My many attempts at propping up The Lone Ranger (2013) come to mind. Or the glory that is A Very Brady Sequel (1996), which I believe completely uncoincidentally also came from the minds of Kaplan and Elfont. Some movies people just seem to form an opinion on and hate from the get go. I try pretty hard at avoiding that. It of course doesn't always hold true and there are surely plenty of great films out there that I never gave a second chance. But, dear readers, I beg all of you, if you haven't already, give Josie and the Pussycats a chance. It will blow your mind.

So, what's the deal, here? Isn't this a random, one-off teen bopper, flash-in-the-plan, trend-chasing dated thoughtless kids' movie? It is absolutely all of those things, but it's also a canny biting critique of consumerism, teen exploitation, and the music industry.

If you're a little behind, let's catch you up on the origins. The 90s for some reason were full of these updated classics, including cartoons. I dug into this a little bit during that A Very Brady Sequel article, and you should check that out for a huge list I compiled. I feel like all of these were popular during their time. Maybe it's just that I was a kid in the 90s and it was all advertised to me. I think when you get a flurry of ads on Nickelodeon in 1995 you think the films are a little bigger than they were.

Live-action cartoons have been a staple for decades at this point, but the 90s mined Hanna-Barbera hard. Looking back, this is clearly the product of older studio executives both interested in the nostalgia from their own youth as well as an ability to appeal to consumers who were now of the age to have children, thus begetting a win-win. They'd pull in dollars from the adults while indoctrinating their small children into the iconography of the by-gone era. If this all seems cynical, that's because it's also exactly what Josie and the Pussycats is all about.

I never read the Archie comics that featured the eponymous band, nor do I really know anything about them. In fact, when the film descends to Riverdale, my first thought was that it was ironic they used the name from Archie. No, that's just the actual town name, man. On the surface this is all the movie is - a shallow cash grab nostalgia trip for baby boomers under a veneer appealing to millennials. But it's so much more!

First, Josie is exceedingly meta in an age well before reflecting on tropes was popular. It all comments on the pointlessness of decisions behind these kinds of movies. At one point one character asks another, "Why are you here?" and she responds, "Because I was in the comic book." She literally doesn't have a function in this movie but is just there hanging around as explicit fan service.

This film is also known for its product placement. It's insanely excessive, the point of distraction. Looking at it with fresh eyes, it's clear that the McDonald's shower curtains, Ray-Ban windshields, and characters lovingly petting the Target dog is satirical commentary on the ubiquity of advertisements in our daily lives, and film promotion in general. They actually say this explicitly in the film as an auxiliary revenue source but it's also known that the filmmakers didn't actually seek permission or get paid for any of the product placement. This is in sharp contrast to a Transformers movie that feels similar but contains none of the self-awareness.

This ties into the main thesis of the film, which centers on a nefarious music record producer infusing subliminal messages into pop albums to decide trends and encourage teenagers to buy things. It ends up being a pithy commentary on the never-ending cycle of capitalism. Characters judge their worth through materials, trends, popularity, and fandom, not any articulate measure of self-worth. This is ultimately unwrought by the film's end, at least for the main characters, although they remain naive towards the shady government agency funding all this mind control.

While it remains an extremely underrated satire, it is also a perfect capsule of 2001 pop culture. We didn't really realize it at the moment, but there was this sincere feeling of pre-9/11 excess and invulnerability. This oral history sums it up well. We were well past grunge and the capitalism of the decade led the music of late 90s / early 2000s to commoditize that punk feeling. Instead of crafting art from authentic pain that spawned dangerous acts like NWA and Nirvana in the early part of the decade, companies cranked out manufactured acts and corporate songs. There was such a fearlessness to all this - people felt very comfortable consuming and pretending to rebel rather than actually articulate a struggle.

Josie expertly demonstrates this industry attempt to wrangle and corporatize popular trends, which also sums up a lot of why 2000s music was terrible. As the oral history notes, this is one reason why current rock and pop artists all feel the same and if their music is good, it's also very non-threatening. Hip-hop is where punk lives in modern times and where the artists are still genuinely fighting authority

Now, this is a side observation, but I have been on a small streak of watching music biopics, which this actually is, even though it's completely fictional. I made the mistake (maybe?) of watching Rocketman (2019) and Walk Hard (2007) back to back. It's just amazing the number of tropes Walk Hard nailed and become very hard to avoid in just about every musical ever. Rocketman wasn't as egregious as Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), but Josie nailed the parody before there was even a glut of biopics to parody.

It brushes by every biopic beat as tropish to the point of admitting the nefarious mind-controlling company manufactured Behind the Music shows to further corporate agendas. It hits the beats but admits artists live a life guided by managers (again...mind-control) in pursuit of the highest popular dollar. None of the biopic melodrama really sticks - sure the group breaks up, but that's because Josie is listening to subliminal messages telling her to go along with what happens to every rock group. The conflict isn't lasting. The film knows it can mine real drama and stakes from the characters and their central conflict with...well, contemporary pop culture I suppose. There is a meta nature here that is so far ahead of anything else that was happening at the time.

This is probably a good reason why the film was so overlooked. Its shiny product placement veneer turned off serious movie-goers, and its basic conceit that all modern pop culture is manufactured mind control turned off its primary demographic. It could quite pull off making fun of the very people who were watching the movie, but looking back now it's easy to laugh at the chaos. It's still earned its cult status, though, and there are true fans like me out there. Probably.

So what do you think? Have I convinced you to give this film another look? It certainly deserves one. It's both indelibly of its time and so far beyond it. I could watch this every day. In addition to all of the above it's consistently funny, has an undercurrent girl power message, and contains some genuine bops. You're in quarantine, just go watch it!

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