It’s fair to say we’re in a renaissance of comic book heroes making it onto the big screen, with Batman, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man and many more taking centre stage at a cinema near you.
However, many moons ago, another comic book favourite made the leap to cinemas, Josie And The Pussycats, and although it flopped at the box office, it’s come to be a bit of a cult favourite over the years and is proof that you don’t have to have superpowers to entertain the pants off your audience.
The basic outline of the film is this. MegaRecords, headed up by the hip but evil Fiona (Parker Posey), is riding high on the wave of success of boy band Du Jour (made up of Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison and Alexander Martin). Looked after by record exec, Wyatt (Alan Cumming), they’re adored by millions of girls, but, unknown to them, their hit records contain subliminal messages, planted by the US government to help build up the economy by getting teenagers to spend their babysitting and odd job money on things they don’t want.
On a flight to another gig, the band finally figure out what’s going on, which leaves Wyatt no other choice but to parachute out of the plane, leaving the band to perish in a plane crash. He conveniently lands in the small town of Riverdale and runs into The Pussycats, Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Valerie (Rosario Dawson) and Melody (Tara Reid). He offers them a deal on the spot and whisks them off to New York faster than you can say ‘hang on a minute, didn’t I see you in Bernard And The Genie?‘
Once there, they’re re-branded as Josie and the Pussycats, much to the band’s dismay, and their first single climbs rapidly up the charts. Although success is quick, happiness within the band is at an all-time low, with Valerie growing angrier with Josie becoming the main focus of the band and Melody, who’s portrayed as being very dim witted, becoming very suspicious of Fiona and Wyatt.
Fearing another repeat of the Du Jour incident, Fiona and Wyatt arrange for Valerie and Melody to be assassinated by none other than MTV’s Carson Daley, while Josie is persuaded that a gig she wanted to see with potential love interest Alan (Gabriel Mann) is cancelled, and instead listens to some music which subliminally tells her she needs to dump the band and will be better off going solo.
After escaping the clutches of Carson Daley, Valerie, Melody and Josie get into a huge fight and it suddenly dawns on Josie what’s going on, but Fiona forces her to take part in a massive pay-per-view concert that night, or she’ll kill the other Pussycats.
Just before the concert goes ahead, though, Du Jour, who are still head to toe in plaster, manage to stop Fiona and Wyatt and the subliminal message machine is destroyed. When the message is discovered, it seems it wasn’t to sell a product or promote the band, it was to make Fiona the most popular person on the planet. Fiona admits she was bullied in high school and spoke with a lisp. Stunned by this revelation, Wyatt reveals himself to be White-Ass Wally, the unpopular albino kid from the same high school. The two promptly fall in love and are arrested by the government, who decide to make them scapegoats for the whole incident.
Josie and the Pussycats end up playing the show and are surprised to find the audience likes them and their music for exactly the right reasons.
That’s the plot. But here’s why it worked.
Josie And The Pussycats started out life in Archie Comics. Created by Dan DeCarlo (who also created Archie favourite Sabrina The Teenage Witch), the Pussycat comics were published from 1963 to 1982 and were even turned into a cartoon series by Hanna-Barbera in 1970 (including a crossover with Scooby Doo). With the odd comic book here and there since, The Pussycats might seem a strange choice for a 2001 movie, but with the huge popularity of Sabrina The Teenage Witch on television and the Spice Girls riding high in the charts, it should have been a runaway success.
Now, I’m not really going to get into what went wrong with this movie, because, personally, I don’t think there’s anything notably wrong with it at all. It’s a perfect send-up of the music industry, and the use of product placement, and it’s also a pretty funny romp (more in the style of Zoolander than, say American Pie), although all these factors could have been part of its undoing.
A lot of people say the American audience doesn’t get satire. I think it is a bit mean, however, the audience this movie was made for (young teenage girls) would totally miss the point behind the movie, which is that it’s making fun of everything the movie is about.
Firstly, there’s the completely over the top boy band, Du Jour, who open up the movie with the hysterically funny song Backdoor Lover, which includes the lyric “I’m your backdoor lover, comin’ from behind’,” and totally sums up the boy band bonanza that was going on at that time. As a fan of one of these sorts of American boy bands growing up, it still makes me giggle to this day.
Then, of course, there’s the entire issue of product placement and trying to sell you things you don’t need. Rather than being a bit high and mighty about it, the filmmakers turn it into one big joke, with no less than seventy-three separate product placements throughout the movie, all of which were not paid for and inserted by the filmmakers personally. We all know product placement is part and parcel of Hollywood now, but sometimes it’s refreshing to see the big names dropped down a peg or two.
There are also a lot of in-jokes and black humour, which move the film along nicely and stop it from being just another teenage comedy movie. A special favourite of mine is, when a character’s asked why she’s there, the reply is it’s because she was in the comic. Pure genius and totally down to writers and directors, Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (who were also behind another of my favourite movies, Can’t Hardly Wait), who manage to keep the movie fresh, funny and entertaining throughout.
In addition to a well placed script, there’s also a well matched cast in place. It girl of the time, Rachel Leigh Cook, riding high on her success in the mega hit, She’s All That, plays the lead role of Josie with an innocence you wouldn’t necessarily expect. She’s also fantastic at keeping a deadpan face when comical chaos erupts around her. Rosario Dawson holds her own in what was essentially one of her first leading roles, and Tara Reid? Well, she isn’t totally annoying and awful, so credit where credit is due.
The stars of the show, though, are villains Fiona and Wyatt. Parker Posey’s not totally annoying, as I’ve find her in almost everything else. (Don’t get me started on Superman Returns.) She and Alan Cumming run about the film as pantomime villains who revel in the demise of anything and anyone who stands in their way. They’re exactly the foil this movie needed, and were awful enough to despise, but funny enough that you sort of forgot about that and wanted to see what they would do next.
After a critical mauling, Josie And The Pussycats slinked out of theatres and onto DVD, where it found its true audience. It’s a film I can sit and talk to my friends about, can quote from, and can put on when I fancy a laugh, and something just to purely entertain me for an hour or so. Also, the soundtrack isn’t half bad either!