Unfortunately, there’s no denying that the 2001 Josie and the Pussycats live-action movie was an objective flop. It grossed less than its production budget at the box office and received a mere one and a half stars from Roger Ebert, a score which accurately reflects its broader critical reception at the time. While this stacked negative sentiment was enough to relegate the film to the sidelines upon its release, over the past two decades it has undergone a much-deserved cultural reevaluation, which effectively brands Josie with the mark of cult status.
“You don’t try to make a cult movie,” said co-director Harry Elfont in an interview with The Fader in 2017. “It was a movie about these girls that was aimed at teenage girls, or younger. But at the same time we wanted to make a very dark satire about commercialism.”
In retrospect, the film’s biggest fault in 2001 may not have been that it was a hilariously heady jab at excess and materialism, rather that it was marketed at teen girls who weren’t expected to understand the joke. Several other sardonic teen satires amassed critical acclaim in 2001, from Donnie Darko’s rave Sundance reviews to Ghost World’s Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. With their R-ratings and auteur directors, these undeniably salient titles were afforded a bit more credibility from the get-go than a film like Josie and the Pussycats, which in contrast received a PG-13 rating and was largely marketed to adolescent girls. Yet it didn’t necessarily fall in the same line that the same year’s The Princess Diaries did, daring instead to treat teens as intelligent viewers able to differentiate between what is being depicted versus what is being said.
“We came up on grunge music and individuality,” said co-director Deb Kaplan in the same interview. “And all of a sudden it all started to disappear so quickly, and it was like we were being force-fed something shiny and clean and sanitized. Josie was a reaction to that.”
A pointed disdain for the mainstream is present from the film’s first moments, which finds a swarm of (mostly) tween girls in their finest Limited Too fits shrieking as their favorite boy band steps off of a private jet. Singing their hit song “Backdoor Lover,” DuJour—partly composed of actors Seth Green and Donald Faison—represent the fleeting nature of early aughts pop stardom, from their cheeky name that prophetesizes their inevitable decline to the inadvertently sexual nature of their hit song’s lyrics: “I’m your backdoor lover / Coming from behind with the lights down low / Backdoor lover / Just you and me, no one has to know.” However, directors Elfont and Kaplan are careful not to harshly target the teen audiences who were being pressured to conform, rather directing their ire at the behind the scenes moguls of these industries who saw their clientele as brainless robots.
Despite the cynicism stemming from an overindulged consumerist streak in America, Elfont and Kaplan miraculously steer clear of nihilism. While Josie and the Pussycats is brimming with ironic product placement and jaded jokes about “trend pimps,” the band itself is a punk-positive driving force that reinforces the power of friendship and individuality, an overwhelmingly cheery and feel-good message that manages to not come off as superficial. Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Val (Rosario Dawson), Melody (Tara Reid) and their band The Pussycats are no strangers to grungy gigs, the audience’s first real introduction to their rock n’ roll prowess being an under-attended show at a bowling alley. They are mocked by popular girls wearing identical hot pink garb, The Pussycats’ adorable “long tails and ears for hats” a symbol of their incompatibility with Y2K fashion aesthetics. Paradoxically, it turns out that divergence sells—once DuJour is no more, their slimy manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) desperately scouts for new talent, nearly mowing down The Pussycats with his luxury SUV as they flee from cops who want to bust their busking. He holds up a blank CD case, their sequined get-ups contrasted with the gritty tar-black streets practically begging Wyatt to launch the band to superstar status.
However, when the glittering idealism of shopping sprees and makeovers dullen, The Pussycats—now re-dubbed Josie and the Pussycats—find themselves overwhelmed with pressure, insecurity and egotism. Val becomes paranoid that with Josie front and center, she is unfairly relegated to the background. After listening to a newly recorded track with subliminal messages, Josie is brainwashed into believing that she is the star of the band, and should be treated as such. Melody is mostly concerned with humming the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” ad nauseum, though she also experiences the vitriol of Josie’s newfound cattiness (“Puppies turn into dogs who DIE!” she barks at animal lover Melody). Josie only snaps out of her self-absorption when Fiona (Parker Posey), the posh owner of the band’s label MegaRecords, plots with Wyatt to eliminate the lesser Pussycats and continue to indoctrinate the masses into materialism through Josie’s music. The power of their genuine camaraderie (read: “girl power”) is enough to foil the plot. On top of that, the strength of their music is more than enough to attract a devoted fan base—The Pussycats didn’t need a corporation behind them to be successful.
It’s important that The Pussycats are never portrayed as weak or easily manipulated—that is, save for their susceptibility to the American government-backed plot to insert subliminal marketing ads in popular teen music—particularly because of the sexism which the inverse scenario might imply. It’s only once they’re given the polished studio versions of their songs that the band begins to crack due to jealousy, ego trips and a ravenous desire to consume (“Gatorade is the new Snapple!”) These sentiments were never secretly bubbling below the surface, only injected into the girls’ subconscious through sinister promotional tactics. This also echos feminist thought: insecurities of unattractiveness are packaged and sold to women rather than intrinsic aspects of womanhood.
“Kids today aren’t dumb, they’re not gonna buy just anything,” explains a delightfully pre-Schitt’s Creek Eugene Levy in a wacky segment where he explains the government’s insidious plot to milk the measly earnings of America’s youth. “We can have them chasing a new trend every week. And that is good for the economy. And what’s good for the economy… is good for the country. So God bless the United States Of America – the most ass-kickin’ country… in the world!
Sure, maybe the Eugene Levy mock spot for the government’s covert brainwashing operation may not have totally landed with the PG-13 crowd, but a staple of any cult film is the joy of dissecting references lost on adolescence in adulthood. In fact, the film’s representation of American consumerist values as vapid and absurd surprisingly predates the post-9/11 pessimism that forever colored domestic critique thereafter, evidence that the people behind the film already wore these (rightfully) unpatriotic sentiments on their sleeves. Just another facet of Josie and the Pussycats that aged like fine wine.
It would be remiss to overlook the story which the film’s bop-filled soundtrack tells itself, particularly when it comes to the fact that indie-rock darling Kay Hanley provided Josie’s fiery vocals. As the frontwoman of the beloved Boston-based alternative band Letters to Cleo, Hanley’s singer/songwriter chops weren’t confined to band practice. The band contributed some of the greatest tracks to iconic teen movie soundtracks, including The Craft, Jawbreaker and Just Like Heaven, with the Shakespeare-inspired rom com 10 Things I Hate About You even featuring a cameo performance from Letters to Cleo. Though only credited as a songwriter on “Shapeshifter” and “Come On,” Hanley’s contribution to each and every song is evident in her powerfully raspy yet simultaneously twee delivery. “3 Words,” the opening track and first song The Pussycats sing in the film, conveys a genuine grunginess that separates The Pussycats from the posers. While the studio songs from Josie and the Pussycats are just as satisfying—from “Pretend to be Nice” to “You’re a Star”—the second to last track on the soundtrack is called “Money (That’s What I Want),” a not-so-subtle nod to the impending capitalistic corruption of the band, emphasized further when followed by DuJour’s overproduced pop tracks “DuJour Around the World” and “Backdoor Lover.” It’s the closer that brings the band back to their punky origins, a guitar-shredding cover of the original theme song from the animated Hanna-Barbera show, a clever way to redeem the band and bring them back to where they started.
There’s a lot to love about Josie and the Pussycats, be it the anti-consumerist commentary of having an aquarium tank sponsored by Evian, the heartening essence of The Pussycats’ friendship or the heavy-hitting soundtrack. The film is even credited with inspiring a new generation of women musicians, with acts like Mitski, Charly Bliss and Emily Reo citing the film as a touchstone for their desire to pursue a career in music. This inducts Josie and the Pussycats into the same theoretical hall of fame as other female-fronted band films, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Times Square and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, all of which influenced a wave of talented women to pick up instruments of their own. Josie and the Pussycats also definitely isn’t the last movie to instill a curiosity in garage rock in young women, with titles ranging from Freaky Friday to We Are the Best! surely leaving a slew of hastily formed girl bands in their wake.
Whether one remembers feeling lukewarm about the movie, clutches to nostalgia-twinged memories of singing along to the physical CD soundtrack or has yet to see Josie and the Pussycats, the sage suggestion of Josie during the band’s first stadium show remains relevant: “It’s cool if you like it, it’s okay if you don’t, just decide for yourselves.”
Josie and the Pussycats premiered on April 11, 2001 and was released by Universal Pictures and MGM and is currently available to stream on Hulu.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures