Something that struck me while revisiting Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s 2001 corporate music and media satire Josie and the Pussycats was a quick establishing shot of the town Josie, Melanie, and Valerie are from. Riverdale, made more famous for its titular primetime soap about to finish its seventh and final season, is the town of Archie, Jughead, and all of the other characters from that moronic comic book that went out of date during the Kennedy administration. I tried “getting into Archie” when I loved comics as a kid, but he was no Spider-Man. Jughead was no Punisher. And they weren’t well-written or interesting, just exactly what they were: the kind of comic you’d expect to come with a piece of chewing gum.
But when we first see this town in this 2001 movie, we see a real street with real fake signs and real fake stores, zero CGI. Later, New York City is done up in glamorously over-the-top CGI that makes it look closer to Tokyo; it’s the kind of animation that fills most of 2008’s Speed Racer. But for the most part, because this movie was made in 2000, it has real sets, real props, and fictional people moving through real spaces.
Elfont and Kaplan’s film came a year before the much more successful Scooby-Doo, which I didn’t like at the time and haven’t seen since—the cartoon was fine, but what’s the point of a live-action movie of a cartoon if it’s just going to be… the cartoon? Josie and the Pussycat’s commercial failure led to considerable recuts on Scooby-Doo, which was also supposed to be a send-up of the show whose satire would play to parents in the crowd, while keeping kids entertained. A fine mission: The Simpsons did it masterfully. But I loved Josie and the Pussycats when I saw it at eight-years-old, at the United Artists Union Square 14, and if it had a better promotional campaign (and a better release date), it would’ve been a hit. There’s nothing “too sophisticated” for kids in this movie.
It’s a standard musician story: local band gets no love, finds fortune with a catch, rides it to the top, gets knocked down, learns lessons, and (almost) everyone goes home happy in the end. Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) is promoted as the “real star” by evil manager Wyatt (Alan Cumming) and puppet master Fiona (Parker Posey, in what remains my favorite performance of hers). Melanie (Tara Reid) and Valerie (Rosario Dawson) are blindsided when Josie turns on them after insisting for most of the movie that they’re a band, not a solo act with a rhythm section. But of course she’s been brainwashed by subliminal messaging, and maybe this is what threw some people off, if this movie really did throw people off, or if it simply wasn’t seen by enough people on initial release: subliminal messages.
Scooby-Doo went through reshoots to make it more family-friendly, according to star Matthew Lillard. Another R-rated comedy would be disemboweled just a year later, when audiences went nuts for an animatronic kangaroo in one scene an Australian set Midnight Run-esque mob comedy, and the producers decided to reshoot most of the movie with a new CGI kangaroo, ditching the real-fake animatronic and sidelining stars Anthony Anderson and Michael Shannon. Kangaroo Jack was released in January 2003.
I didn’t know what “Du Jour” meant or why the boy band of the moment was called that, but I could follow the brainwashing plot all the way—maybe because subliminal messages and brainwashing were key plot elements in many of the movies and television shows I watched in the late-1990s and early-2000s: The Simpsons, Little Nicky, Zoolander all deal with secret messages in music.
Seventy-three brands are featured in Josie and the Pussycats, including: Target, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Snapple, Gatorade, Puma, AOL, Evian, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Zima, Tide, MTV, Sega, Sony, Nokia, Gap, Banana Republic, Apple, Gibson, Yamaha, Versace, Microsoft, Blackberry, and… Archie Comics. There are 73 products placed in Josie and the Pussycats, an obvious joke from minute one, and a joke they allegedly didn’t get paid for. Their careers tanked after this, and although they’ve been able to continue writing and directing, Josie and the Pussycats was a career-ending bomb. Considering how popular the movie’s become, and how that happened almost as soon as it came out on DVD, Hollywood’s treatment of Elfont and Kaplan is so stupid and thoughtless, a corporate brain misfiring, it’s like something out of their own movie.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith