It’s an uncomfortable truth that for the vast majority of boys, the first sex symbols we fixate on are animated. It’s entirely possible this is true for girls as well, but I’ve never been a girl, so I don’t really want to speculate. Cartoons, usually some of the first entertainment we seek out and take ownership of, design characters that are impossibly attractive, and they’re having all kinds of cool adventures and being in bands and solving mysteries, and so it’s almost stranger if you never think to yourself, “Someday, I will marry Josie McCoy.”
In 2001, the news that not only would there be a Josie and the Pussycats movie, but it would star Rachael Leigh Cook — who was in my opinion the most beautiful woman in the world at that time — would have been greeted with the same enthusiasm if you told today me that bleu cheese is a cancer vaccine that also grants superpowers. Yeah… my priorities have changed a wee bit since then.
Of course, the biggest surprise about this is that not only, against all odds, was Josie and the Pussycats good, it’s still a movie I will happily watch over a decade later. It might seem odd to bring this specific film up in a series about mostly horror movies. It all comes back to the reaction to the Jem and the Holograms movie. Jem never had the same cultural cache for me that Josie did, but they both come from the same place. When the disastrous trailer hit the net, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to (justifiably) complain, but what I saw a lot of was comparing it unfavorably to my favorite movie about an all-girl band of furries. Hold on there, internet outrage machine. The Jem and the Holograms trailer can both be superficially similar to Josie and still be fucking awful. That doesn’t change Josie’s place as a fundamentally sweet, funny pop confection that is still well worth your time.
Josie charts the progress of the eponymous band from a trio of radically different young women each holding down multiple jobs (although one of Melody’s appears to be “standing by the side of the road with signs”), to their place as the biggest musical act in the world. This takes about a week of in-movie time, too. Along the way, they run afoul of a secret cabal who uses subliminal messages in pop music to turn modern teens into capitalist drones obsessed with chasing trends they don’t understand.
The main characters get introduced over the first (and in my opinion best) of the original songs. In a montage that’s half-credit sequence and half music video, you get the quick establishing characteristics of all three women (and some supporting personnel). There’s Josie McCoy (Cook), guitars and lead vocals, a hard worker with a cat fixation, Val (Rosario Dawson), bass, a big-hearted athlete who spends a lot of her time working for charities, and sweetly daft Melody (Tara Reid), drums, a space cadet who loves animals and her perpetually vacant expression. All three are great in these roles, and even as critics found little to like at the time, they usually singled out Dawson for her confident-yet-fragile turn. Also, the woman has not aged a single day. She might be the Highlander.
When the action opens, the biggest band in the world is Dujour, one of those boy bands that were really important right around then. These four, and the faces are familiar, hop off their private plane and immediately launch into their signature single, “Backdoor Lover,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Unfortunately for them, they have discovered something strange with their music and their manager, Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), has them killed in a plane crash (using the code phrase “Take the Chevy to the levee,” implying that this is done often enough to need a phrase, and throwing a good reference into the mix).
On the hunt for his next big act, Frame latches onto the Pussycats, and instantly remakes them into exactly what it wants. Val susses out that something’s wrong fairly quickly, although some of that is due to the fact that Frame really doesn’t like her, as the Pussycats are instantly rechristened to position Josie as a frontwoman. The others take a little more time, but eventually they’re all on the same page. Well, maybe not Mel. We’re not entirely sure she can read. Eventually, friendship has to rule the day, and reunited the ladies can beat the corrupt executives, play their triumphant stadium gig, and Josie can get the guy (who Mrs. Supermarket calls “Young James Spader”).
Josie and the Pussycats could have been hideously cynical, as it’s a self-aware, fourth wall-busting polemic on the evils of mindless consumerism. Fortunately, the movie retains a light touch with by concentrating on the friendship between the woman. The performances help as well, especially Cumming, Missi Pyle as the obnoxious Alexandra Cabot (“I was in the comic book,” she snits when her brother asks what she’s doing there), and Parker Posey as the deranged villain Fiona. While the character works just fine as she is — an insane villain — she’s a lot deeper than she looks at first glance. She’s a woman emotionally crippled by the very standards she’s working so hard to enforce. It’s an interesting, and subtle, depiction of the roles many female taste-makers have in propping up the patriarchy. Also, it’s Parker Posey and she can do more with an eyeroll than most actors can with a histrionic death scene.
Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Josie and the Pussycats was a flop. RLC, who had been on track for stardom after her turn in the truly bizarre She’s All That (seriously, it’s way stranger than you remember) got the biggest payday of her career and promptly was consigned to the indie crime film ghetto. This was the last appearance of appealing Tara Reid. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, who followed up their big hit (and all around solid teen comedy) Can’t Hardly Wait with this, have still not gotten another chance to direct a movie. While Josie is much better than its reputation suggests, it just never connected with its audience.
Part of that can be blamed on when it was released: April of 2001. This was the tail end of the country-wide malaise where we had nothing real to care about. Even then, we were already tired about caring about nothing. The candy colors and conspicuous consumerism look even more alien when viewed through a post-Great Recession lens.
Look past all that and you’ll find a fun little comedy about a trio of rockers who just want to make music in cat ears. Isn’t that all you really need? And “Backdoor Lover” will be going through your head for a week. That’s just a bonus.