Monday, October 15, 2012

Rocktober: 'Josie and the Pussycats' (2001)

A huge flop upon its release in 2001, Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan's Josie and the Pussycats has since become a minor cult classic and is more relevant now than ever before. Their scathing but good-natured satire of the music business is funny, insightful and consistently entertaining, delivering its pointed criticisms via goofy characters, catchy songs and silly set pieces. Watching Carson Daly and some random guy pretending to be Carson Daly (despite looking and sounding nothing like him) attempt to murder rock stars Valerie (Rosario Dawson) and Melody (Tara Reid) with baseball bats on a fake TRL set is inherently absurd, but it's also kind of a genius way to poke fun at the superficiality of MTV.

Until watching it again recently, I hadn't seen Josie and the Pussycats since its initial release, but I've listened to the excellent soundtrack countless times over the last decade, and it holds up extremely well as a top-notch power-pop album even divorced entirely from the movie, with great vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo and songwriting contributions from Hanley, Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, The Go-Gos' Jane Wiedlin, Babyface (who was also one of the movie's producers) and many more. The songs help bolster the movie's story of the band's whirlwind success, since it's easy to believe that these energetic pop songs could be big hits (indeed the soundtrack was much more successful than the movie itself).

Of course, the idea that pop hits are manufactured independent of the quality of the music is one of the movie's central ideas, so the songs played by Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Valerie and Melody don't have to be great. The movie distills the cynical marketing machine of pop music into a brilliant montage of the band's rise to the top of the charts that takes place over the course of a single week, and the nonstop bombardment of product placement and merchandising perfectly mirrors the way that pop stars are treated as commodities.

And in a strange way this movie, even with its emphasis on CD sales and the primacy of TRL, is a better reflection of the music industry now than it was a decade ago. With record sales going down the drain, marketing is really the surest way for the biggest music stars to make money, and product deals are the lifeblood of the big record companies. Elfont and Kaplan convey how insidious this is, but they also tell a fun, lively story about three friends who dream of being rock stars and almost let it ruin their friendship. Cook, Dawson and Reid are all perfectly cast, and Cook in particular has so much charisma that it makes you wonder why she never became a bigger star. The box-office failure of this movie probably has something to do with it (Elfont and Kaplan haven't directed since), but we can look back 11 years later and appreciate the movie's cleverness, talent and commentary for how ahead of their time they really were.


Pj Perez said...

I've never understood in general why Cook didn't blow up larger than she did in the late '90s/early 2000s. I have a theory it may be because of her babyface, which makes it hard to carry "leading lady" roles, but that's just speculation.

Josh said...

I think you may be right; reviewing the TNT crime procedural Perception, I had a hard time buying Cook as an FBI agent, even though she's now in her 30s. She still looks like she should be in high school.