Josie & The Pussycats Was Way Too Jerkin’ For Its Time

According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
“Three Small Words,” the opening song from Josie and the Pussycats, is my Proust’s madeleine. When Josie McCoy (played by Rachael Leigh Cook, with Letters To Cleo frontwoman Kate Hanley taking over on vocals) launches into “I’m a punk rock prom queen,” I can practically smell the combination of Herbal Essences crunchy curl mousse and Lancôme Juicy Tubes that defined my entry into puberty.  
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Directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (the duo also behind 1998 teen classic Can’t Hardly Wait), and based on the 1960s Archie comic characters, the 2001 movie is a time capsule. Beyoncé, Aaliyah and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes all auditioned for the role of Valerie Brown (which eventually went to Rosario Dawson)—that’s right, Beyoncé auditioned. Josie has feathered short red hair, the cool girl style of its time, and Tara Reid tells Carson Daly she would never date someone like him with a wink since the two were dating when the movie was filmed. (They split just months after the movie came out, in July 2001.)
That nostalgic throwback makes it fun to revisit today, but it doesn’t explain why it’s become an enduring classic for women of my generation. This movie was a primal, guitar-scored cry for girl power and sisterhood. It showed me a universe where women wanted more than to look good for a boy — they wanted to rock out with their friends.They had ambitions and weren’t made to apologize for them. In fact, it just made them more appealing. The bright sparkly triangle belly tops and low-cut flares were just window dressing for a message that has stayed with me since then: You can be more than window dressing. 
But when it was released in April 2001, Josie and the Pussycats was a commercial and critical failure. Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times wrote that “few people other than airline passengers should be submitted to such misery.”
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 Roger Ebert disparaged the characters, writing that “Josie and the Pussycats are not dumber than the Spice Girls, but they're as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough.” He also didn’t like the soundtrack, the result of a legendary collaboration bringing together producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Fountains Of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, Jane Wiedlin from The Go-Gos’, and That Dog’s Anna Waronker, among others. “Maybe it's supposed to sound like brainless pre-teen fodder, but it's not good enough at being bad to be funny, and stops merely at the bad stage.”
At Rolling Stone, Peter Travers called it “a harmless girlie trifle,” before lamenting its lack of male-gaze oriented sex appeal. “Gone are the catsuits — fetishists will have to settle for pussycat carphones. In the Anywhere, USA town of Riverdale, songbird Josie, played by Rachael Leigh Cook, pines chastely for Alan M. (Gabriel Mann), a lanky musician who doesn’t even notice this kitty has titties.” (Wonder what  he thinks of the fur boobs in Cats?)
The movie bombed at the box office, grossing a mere $14.9 million USD domestically, a fraction of its $39 million USD budget. (For comparison, Spice World, which was released in 1998 to even worse reviews, grossed $151 million USD — but that was about a real band.) The reception was so bad that Kaplan and Elfont gave up directing movies as a result. 
"It made us super gun-shy to direct again — which cost us," Elfont told Buzzfeed in 2017. "We said no to a lot of things that came our way because we didn't want to go through that again unless we really, really love it and know it's going to work. Then we never ended up directing another movie. We just let too much time go past."
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"It took us out of the movie industry," Kaplan added
Nearly two decades later, however, Josie (Cook), Valerie Brown (Dawson) and Melanie Valentine (Reid) have finally been inducted as goddesses in the Parthenon of early aughts pop culture. Much like Jennifer’s Body, Karyn Kusama’s 2008 horror movie starring Megan Fox, Josie and the Pussycats has been enjoying a late-blooming spurt of critical respect. 
It started around 2017, when memorabilia company Mondo re-released the soundtrack on vinyl. A revival screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Los Angeles — attended by the the stars and featuring a live performance of their hit songs — quickly sold out, giving rise to renewed interest in the movie. At Fader, Leah Mandel put together an oral history of the “best fake rock band ever.” Graffiti With Punctuation ran “Why Josie and the Pussycats Means So Much To The Millennial Generation” The Los Angeles Times declared it had been “misunderstood.” Even more recently, in July 2019, A/V Club made a case for why “Josie and the Pussycats Is The Greatest Movie of All Time.”
Many of these pieces were written by women who had grown up watching the film, and felt that their tastes had been discounted and disregarded. In that sense, Josie and the Pussycats acts as yet another case study proving the importance of a diverse critical body, and that a film’s impact isn’t always immediate. 
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Josie and the Pussycats opens with a twist. The first people we meet aren’t Josie and her friends, but Dujour, a boy band modelled after N’Sync and The Backstreet Boys. As fans know, “Dujour means family” and “Dujour means seatbelts,” but Dujour also means corporate greed. When the band starts asking questions about a strange backing track they’ve discovered on their new album, manager Wyatt Frame (played with sinister and absurd panache by Alan Cumming) stages a plane crash to get rid of them. We soon learn why: Wyatt and his boss, Megarecords CEO Fiona (Parker Posey, who gives a hilariously destabilizing performance as a campy girlboss who also really wants friends — completely at odds with her status as a serious indie star) have been working with the U.S. government to send subliminal messages to teens through music in order to keep them docile and compliant consumers. With Dujour out of the picture, they need a new band to promote. 
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Enter Josie, Val, and Mel, Riverdale’s resident Pussycats. Tired of playing killer sets to empty bowling alleys, they can’t believe their luck when Wyatt suddenly appears with an offer to sign them on the spot. With manager Alexander Cabot (Paul Costanzo), his twin sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle), and Josie’s unspoken crush/friend Allan M (Gabriel Mann) in tow, the newly rebranded Josie and the Pussycats head off to New York City to make it big. 
Despite its overall progressive outlook, Josie and the Pussycats still reflects certain limitations of its time. As with any dated piece of pop culture, certain things don’t hold up.The blaccent adopted by the white members of Dujour is a prime example, as is the earnest Bill Cosby impression. I could do without Mel as the dumb blonde and Fiona’s obsession with other people’s weight — not to mention that being thin is presented as aspirational. And then there’s the fact that both Josie and Mel have some kind of romantic moment (the former with Alan M, and the latter with Daly — even if he is trying to kill her), while Val, the only woman of colour, ends up alone. (Race is an on-going problem for the Archie Comics universe. Even the CW’s Riverdale, which initially appeared to be making space for Black women by casting Ashleigh Murray, Asha Bromfield and Hayley Law as Josie, Melody and Val, respectively, has been criticized for using the characters as foils for white protagonists.)
But beyond that, the movie has modern appeal. It’s genuinely visually pleasing. Every one of the Pussycats’ performances has the glossy look of a really good music video. It was shot by Matthew Libatique, a cinematographer who would later work on Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born, as well as the upcoming Birds of Prey, and is a frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator. The costumes, designed by Leesa Evans (also known for Bridesmaids and Always Be My Maybe), are fantastic bursts of colour and patterns, richly saturated and so, so covetable. And remind me, why did we give up on body shimmer? These women glow
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The other is the music. I cannot overstate how much this soundtrack still slaps. “Spin Around,” “Pretend To Be Nice,” “You Don’t See Me,” “You’re A Star,” and of course, “Three Small Words,” are great songs, and elevate what could have been a parody of tween rock into art. But Josie and the Pussycats was perhaps most prescient in its portrayal of the movie industry. Part of Fiona’s master plan is to stage a gigantic stadium concert that is simultaneously live streamed across the world. In order to hear, fans have to buy merch in the form of cat-shaped headsets. Take away the dial-up noise and AOL logo, and you could be watching Ariana Grande. 
Mimicking the very capitalist excesses they’re mocking, Kolben and Elfont hilariously pepper every scene with brands. Josie’s hotel room is full of Revlon logos, while Val sleeps on a Target duvet. The Dujour jet is sponsored by Bounce. Squint, and you’ll spot references to American Express, Apple, Ivory soap, Hostess, Bebe, Coke, Diesel, Steve Madden, Ray-Ban, Ford, Krispy Kreme, Bloomingdale's, Starbucks, T.J.Maxx, Victoria's Secret, SoBe, McDonald's, Puma, Virgin Megastore, Kodak, Motorola, Bugles, America Online, Crest, Converse, Butterfinger, Pringles, Verizon, Sony, Advil, Clearasil, and Hawaiian Tropic, among others. Even the water in the aquarium Josie and Alan visit in New York floats an Evian logo. 
None of these brands paid the filmmakers for product placement. Still, the satire was lost on many critics, who appeared to think the film was playing into the very thing it was trying to criticize. “The concept is so hypocritical, it's like Britney Spears calling Christina Aguilera underdressed and overexposed,” Susan Wloszczyna wrote in her review for USA Today
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But what seemed like a tongue-in-cheek gag at the time, has turned out to be prescient. Today, when every celebrity is out there peddling weight loss tea, and brands are leaning into providing experiences and feelings rather than just consumer goods, it’s downright eerie to watch. 
In the last couple of years, it’s become trendy to package blockbusters as pseudo-feminist rallying cries in an effort to capitalize on a neglected female market, a strategy that would fit right into Fiona and Wyatt’s playbook. But Josie and the Pussycats was the real deal. The chemistry between the three leads feels organic because it was. “We just hit it off, and it’s hard for three girls to hit it off,” Reid said in a 2001 interview. "You either like someone or you don’t, and if you don’t you have to try.” 
“It’s very rare in their opinion that three girls who are all aspiring actresses, would get along,” Dawson added about her co-stars. “There can be a lot of infighting, catfighting. And that’s really not here. We’re really supportive and loving.”
Their words reveal just how deeply ingrained Hollywood’s scarcity mentality is for women: Their first assumption was to be wary of their co-stars. Josie and the Pussycats subverted those tropes off and on-screen. Yes, Josie, Val and Mel fight, but in their defense, they were literally being brainwashed by a bad system. In the end, friendship and sisterhood wins the day. The film also highlights the way Black women are systematically gaslit. Val is the first to suspect that something’s wrong with this whole set-up, but her valid concerns are dismissed as jealousy by her bandmates, who prefer to believe their white bosses over their long-time friend. 
The ending, in particular, feels like a pointed gender reversal. Josie and company, having defeated their corporate overlords, decide to play their stadium concert for their legions of cat-eared fans. After calling for the audience to take off their brainwash headsets, Josie dedicates a new song to Alan M, whom she thinks doesn’t return her feelings. But as the band launches into “Spin Around,” (a true banger) Alan M. shows up, and declares his love. They share a kiss, and then he steps backstage to cheer from the sidelines. The happily ever after isn’t romance— it’s Josie and her friends achieving their goals. They guy is just a nice perk. 

Josie and the Pussycats isn’t the definitive version of this story. If anything, its later success proves that there’s an opening for fresh iteration. I hear cat ears are the new Airpods.

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