Flop and Fizzle #1: Long live JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS (Join the Army) — Moviejawn
Jun 07, 2023
For our annual summer countdown, we are looking at our favorite 25 movies that were not huge hits during their initial release, but mean a lot to us. Check out last year’s Summer of Stars countdown or the year before when we did blockbusters! Find the rest of the Flop and Fizzle series here!
by Tina Kakadelis, Staff Writer
The first time I saw Josie and the Pussycats was in the backseat of my family’s minivan. My parents are firm believers in the family road trip. If driving was conceivable, that was the preferred option. I feel the same way now, but it’s impossible to tell if that’s a result of nature or nurture. As a kid, though, those grueling ten-hour days were exhausting and filled with boredom. My sister and I were given workbooks and expected to complete a few chapters during the drive from Baltimore to Chicago or some other, more distant, destination.
My dad has always been good with building things and problem solving. You could say that’s why he’s an engineer. Those traits did not get passed down to me. Unless you count my ability to assemble IKEA furniture without getting frustrated as “building things.” In the summer between my fifth and sixth grade years, my family set out on a roadtrip across the country. From sea to shining sea if you will. In order to minimize complaints from the peanut gallery (my sister and me), my dad built a wooden box that sat between us in the backseat. It held a PlayStation, the original, and on the seat in front of us, a small TV was mounted. I couldn’t possibly tell you how it was powered or how it worked, but it kept us entertained for miles upon miles.
In a Walmart bargain bin, somewhere in the middle of America, my family came across a DVD copy of Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s Josie and the Pussycats. Released in 2001, the film is a satirical take on the music industry using the band from the Archie comics. Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Mel (Tara Reid), and Val (Rosario Dawson) are the Pussycats. They’re living in Riverdale and dreaming of making it big, but they’re playing shows in bowling alleys to people who don’t give them a care in the world. All that changes when Wyatt (Alan Cumming), an executive for MegaRecords, literally falls out of the sky. Without hearing them play a single note, Wyatt signs them to the record label and the young women are launched into a brand new world of stardom.
In 2001, Josie and the Pussycats was ripped to shreds by critics and audiences alike. Roger Ebert said, “Josie and the Pussycats are not dumber than the Spice Girls, but they're as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough” and gave the film a half-star rating. The film failed to make back its $22-39 million budget and was entirely written off as brainless entertainment that relied on its abundance of product placement to substantiate its existence. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but nobody in 2001 expected the young women at the heart of Josie and the Pussycats to be in on the joke rather than being the butt of it.
My parents picked up Josie and the Pussycats because of the familiar name. They knew Josie, Mel, and Val from Archie comics. This was 2004, I was ten, my sister eleven. My parents likely felt comfortable purchasing this particular DVD because the front cover proudly proclaimed that this was a family-friendly edition. It wouldn’t be until 2017 that I would finally see the original theatrical cut of the film, and to this day, my sister has still only seen the family-friendly edition.
It’s hard to understand how a film like Josie and the Pussycats went over the heads of adults when two pre-teen children immediately understood its purpose. It was never brainless or simple, but instead, a scathing, humorous attack on capitalism. We still haven’t learned its lessons twenty-two years later. Now more than ever, our pop culture is dominated by product placements and advertisements. As much as I’m excited about Greta Gerwig’s take on Barbie, it’s hard not to think about how Josie and the Pussycats saw this reality all those years ago. In fact, Josie and the Pussycats is a good example of product integration and using film as a means of reinvigorating intellectual property. Having finally seen Barbie, it’s safe to say that it would not exist without Josie and the Pussycats. The two are kindred spirits in their use of source material to take a tongue-in-cheek but withering look at the reality we’re living today. Our art is now intrinsically tied to its monetary power, for better or worse.
Over the course of that family trip, my sister and I fell in love with Josie and the Pussycats. Upon returning home and seeing friends again, we were shocked to learn no one had seen it. When we forced them to watch it, they didn’t feel the same magic we did. Maybe it’s because of the times, but it seemed as though Josie and the Pussycats was a weird movie made specially for us. It was something mutual, a shared collection of jokes and songs that didn’t seem to have an impact on the rest of the world. It very much felt like an inside joke, a secret that only a select few could understand. A litmus test for who got that ineffable, cool it. A long time was spent living in this world of only my sister, the family friendly DVD, and me. It would take a while, but we were proven very right.
In 2017, for one night only, the band got back together. Cook, Dawson, and Reid didn’t actually sing or play their instruments for the Josie and the Pussycats album, so the band in question is actually led by Letters to Cleo frontwoman Kay Hanely. At the Ace Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles, Josie and the Pussycats finally got their due. It was an event that was held to celebrate Mondo’s pressing of the film’s original soundtrack and was part-concert, part-Q&A with the writer/director duo and the actors, and a screening.
It just so happened that I moved to Los Angeles in 2017. When the event was announced, there was no question about whether I’d be there. I knew I was going to attend. When I arrived, I was met with a line that wrapped around the block. People of all ages were decked out in their Josie best, a sea of animal print and kitten-ear headbands as far as the eye could see. That one August night is the only time I’ve ever seen the theatrical cut, and I found myself missing the awkwardly edited-out swear words from my home copy.
The energy in the Ace Hotel Theatre that night was unlike any concert or screening I’ve ever been to. A lot of people, like myself, went alone, but there was an overwhelming feeling of familiarity. Here was the movie we had all loved that had never gotten its moment in the sun and there, on the stage, were the people who had brought it to life.
Long live Josie and the Pussycats. (Join the Army.)by Tina Kakadelis, Staff Writer