The clever satire of pop culture consumerism is still as fresh and relevant as ever.
By the time Josie and the Pussycats premiered in theaters in April 2001, the pop culture universe of the early aughts was already in full swing. Dissenting and raging against the machine was out, and corporate partnerships and glossy production values were in. Total Request Live was the hottest television show on the air, and it had only been eleven months after Britney Spears released Oops! I Did it Again and became the official celebrity endorser for Got Milk, Clairol, and Polaroid. The Spice Girls had just gone on hiatus, and it was the height of the Backstreet Boys vs. N*SYNC fan wars. Post Y2K and only a few months before 9/11, the Dot-com bubble was imploding and consumerism was already at an all time high.
In the midst of this rapidly expanding whirlwind of corporate and pop culture, as told to Buzzfeed News in 2017, writer/directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont set out to tell a story that tied it all together, critiquing the soullessness of the corporate pop culture machine while celebrating the actual music and the artists who created it through a film adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats — an all girl band with three members: lead singer Josie McCoy, bass player Valerie Brown, and drummer Melody Valentine — who first appeared in Archie Comics in the 1960s and later in a Hanna-Barbera animated series that aired in the early 70s.
In the hands of Kaplan and Elfont, Josie (Rachael Lee Cook), Valerie (Rosario Dawson) and Melody (Tara Reid) are spirited, earnest small town girls from Riverdale who love being musicians, and genuinely want the world to hear their music. By pure chance, the three young women get caught up in the insidious web of music executive Wyatt (Alan Cumming) and Fiona (a fantastically campy Parker Posey), the CEO of MegaRecords. They’re the architects behind the corporate machine that feeds subliminal messages beneath music to the youth of America in order to influence everything about their lives.
Fiona’s goal is to turn the world of teenagers into “one giant TV commercial,” as she explains to a group of world leaders. According to her, teens have “brains like Play-Doh, waiting to be molded into shapes.” Josie and her bandmates almost become the unwitting linchpins of Fiona’s plans for world domination, until they realize the truth and escape from her clutches. They destroy the machine that pumps the subliminal messages into their music, freeing America’s teenagers as well and giving them a chance to judge The Pussycats’ music on their own terms.
The screenplay is campy, clever, and funny, loaded with non-stop jokes and references, such as, when Josie points out how strange it is that her former bullies are suddenly obsessed with her, and Wyatt retorts “Most people have to wait till their ten year reunion for that kind of revenge.”
There is a brand visible on nearly every frame, Mr. Moviefone is the voice of all the subliminal messages, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the codename for the initiative for MegaRecords to remove any dissenting teenagers who don’t fall for the subliminal messages, and Carson Daly and Eugene Levy are both secretly part of the conspiracy. We even learn that VH1’s Behind the Music was created specifically to explain away the mysterious deaths and disappearances of multiple musicians who figured out the truth and must be disposed of (with the codename “Take the Chevy to the levee”).
Though rated PG-13, Josie is clearly not written with teenagers in mind. According to Kaplan and Elfont, they were so engrossed in the story they had written they didn’t realize their sharp satirical vision conflicted with the marketing plans of the distributor, who planned to target the film towards young girls. As such, as Anne Cohen outlines in her 2020 retrospective on the film, Josie was panned and misunderstood by critics upon release, who wrote it off as a piece of preteen fluff with little substance, despite its clear and searing point of view.
Two decades later, Josie and the Pussycats has rightfully been recognized as a smart film far ahead of its time in satirizing the pop culture climate of the early 2000s, with a genuinely fantastic soundtrack lovingly and intentionally crafted by Kay Hanley of the band Letters to Cleo (who also memorably featured in another classic teen film, 10 Things I Hate About You) and producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds that still holds up today.
In revisiting it twenty years after its release, the film feels like a strikingly prescient commentary on control, or the lack thereof that musical artists of the era— especially women — actually had over their public image. Though the #MeToo era reckonings and documentaries such as Framing Britney Spears are very slowly uncovering the true toxicity of the media environments and the struggles these women went through, at the time, public perception of pop stars were strongly influenced by the carefully manufactured narratives that made it seem like the pop stars themselves had control over their images and the way they were perceived.
The film feels like a prescient commentary on control, or the lack thereof that musical artists of the era— especially women — actually had over their public image.
What we know now, of course, is that not only were these public facades created by committee, the young stars in the middle of it all were often manipulated into presenting versions of themselves that were false. The power these brands and corporations had over their artists was a very real thing, with many arms, each with outsize influence.
At the end of Josie and the Pussycats, Josie, Valerie, and Melody are able to take control of their narrative by destroying the physical machine that is holding America’s teenagers hostage, which finally allows their young audience to listen to their music, unfiltered, free from the subliminal messaging that has influenced their opinions to date, and decide for themselves whether or not they like their music.
However, the machine is just one cog within the larger system of manipulation, and though Josie and her friends are able to win the day and defeat Fiona and Wyatt, the cynical backbone of the film remains to the end. The US Government reveals they were planning to shut down the whole MegaRecords operation anyway, because subliminal messages are much more effective in movies, and in rewatching that scene now, it’s hard not to think about how that has become an actual reality today considering the close involvement the American military has with the development of Marvel films and Hollywood’s deep ties with law enforcement.
Is it truly ever possible to gain control of your own narrative when so many outside influences want to shape how the world sees you? Twenty years ago, Josie and the Pussycats posited that it’s not, and in revisiting the film in the context of today’s social media era, with endless sponsored content posted on big tech and filtered through the veneer of authenticity, it’s clear to see that they were right all along.
Josie and the Pussycats Trailer: