Underrated and Under-appreciated: Josie and the Pussycats

We found subliminal messages work better in movies anyway.

We found subliminal messages work better in movies anyway.

I watched Josie and the Pussycats the other night, and realized something. While no, this movie is not an AFI top 100 and would never win an Oscar in this universe, it’s still a pretty solid film.

Which made me think about the early 2000s (into the mid-2000s) and how a lot of movies in that time period were strange in the way only movies made in the early 2000s can be. It was a cultural question mark. No one really knew which way was up, and for all of the decade we were freaking out about Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter.

So this is the first installment of an ongoing series where I will pick apart a movie which I believe is underrated and under-appreciated.

For my first trick I will show you how Josie and the Pussycats was a well crafted commentary on our society as a whole, and how ridiculously 2000s it was. Stick with me for screencaps and fun!

For those of you who forgot the plot to Josie and the Pussycats here is a brief summary: Josie, Mel, and Val are all in a rock band in Riverdale USA (no state is ever mentioned) where they play bowling alleys and get mocked by their high school friends. After a “terrible” plane crash the world’s #1 band, Dujour, disappear. Their manager, and MegaRecords #2 man, Wyatt goes in search of a new band and finds The Pussycats. He signs them immediately, and they skyrocket to fame in a week. Behind the scenes Fiona, the head of MegaRecords, brainwashes the youth of America with popular music, killing off any celebrities who find out what she’s doing. Ultimately the other two Pussycats prove problematic, and Carson Daly is hired to murder them. While that happens Josie gets a special CD and is brainwashed herself. When she figures out she’s been brainwashed she gets kidnapped and taken to her “Big Concert” where Fiona will broadcast a special message. Backstage Josie and the Pussycats kick some MegaRecords ass, all after learning Dujour was trying to warn them the whole time. It all ends with a big concert and Alan M. confessing his love for Josie.

From the start this movie pulls punches at trends and icons of the time. The fake band Dujour is clearly a rip off of bands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. They parody the Backstreet Boys music video “I Want It That Way” with the plane entrance and adoring fans in the background. The dance moves are completely on target. But then you pay a little closer attention, and listen to the lyrics of “Backdoor Lover” and know, just know, it’s all about anal sex.

Let's have anal sex, it really won't hurt that bad! And then the girls all scream

Let’s have anal sex, it really won’t hurt that bad!
And then the girls all scream

This movie is already off to an amazing, parodying, start.

My favorite is the second verse, “You know that I won’t hurt you | so open up and let me in | We love each other way too much for it to be a sin” So at least they’ll be gentle while doing it up the ass. “Of course I love you, baby, God would be fine with us doing it up the ass.” is the real message of the song. But the end just drives home the homoeroticism of boy bands as a whole, “Just cause I slip in backdoors | well, that doesn’t make me, hey!”

If you couldn't tell this song was about anal sex, here's a helpful hint.

If you couldn’t tell this song was about anal sex, here’s a helpful hint.

The entire song (and accompanying dance) mocks all the boy-band tropes. They do it perfectly, the matching (but slightly different) outfits, the choreographed dance moves, the mobs of screaming girls. It brings me back to elementary school.

This doesn’t just show that they can parody, but it also shows they are not taking themselves seriously. Seth Green in a feather boa and a top hat would never happen if they thought this was a serious piece of art. They know they’re making a comic book/cartoon adaptation, and treat it appropriately.

The sequence before the title card also serves to hint at the main conflict of the film, that the record company is controlling these bands.

Then we’re introduced to Josie and the Pussycats in a montage-original-song-music-video that could only happen before 2007. How often do big budget movies pull out the montage sequence when it isn’t related to a direct goal? Almost never. This sets up who the characters are without wasting precious time, and updates them for the modern world.

Actually, there are no fewer than three montages in the movie, a feat I believe indicative of the time period. The second is a traditional make-over-montage, and the third is the classic rise-to-fame-montage. All of them serve a purpose, and all of them are hilariously cartoonish and great.

The film further pushes away seriousness by being fairly self referential, when Wyatt shows the Pussycats their billboard and explains to Val, “Are you more likely to read a comic, or watch a cartoon, or go and see a movie about a trio of luscious ladies called Josie and the Pussycats?” referring to all the different media the Pussycats had over the years. Wyatt stares into the camera when he first discovers the band, giving the audience a knowing smirk.

Yes, those are Josie and the Pussycats, yes I do work for MegaRecords, yes I do need a new #1 band.

Yes, those are Josie and the Pussycats, yes I do work for MegaRecords, yes I do need a new #1 band.

But, by far the best self referential moment happens when Josie and Alexandra discover Mr. Movie Phone is the voice of the subliminal messages used to brainwash the youth of America.  Alexandra sarcastically comments, “DUM DUM DUM, ooh brainwashing, oooh help we’re being brainwashed!” and then spews out “Diet Coke is the new Pepsi ONE” followed by, you guessed it!, dramatic DUM DUM DUM music.

Immediately I connected with the Pussycat girls, because who wants to be a backdoor lover when you can be a punk rock prom queen? They also live on the outskirts of suburbia, which I can totally get behind. The movie paints them as go-getting girls who don’t care what society tells them to do, and that will come in handy later.

Another point I would like to emphasize is the reversal of gender roles. Alan M. shows up at Josie’s door not to ask her on a date, or help her at all, but to have HER fix HIS truck.

Apparently Josie took Shop class in high school and Alan M. took Home Ec.

Apparently Josie took Shop class in high school and Alan M. took Home Ec.

He’s also completely fine with her getting all the fame and glory, not sitting there bitching because it’s not all about him. If The Mystery Machine broke down I’m pretty sure Fred would start giving blow jobs for money before he asked Velma for help.

Fiona heads all of MegaRecords, and took over (I assume, since she probably didn’t bump off Elvis in the 1970s) the entire operation of brainwashing the youth of America. Sure, in the end she’s trying to use it for only her advantage, but she made it all the way to the final stage using her own abilities.

Plus it's Parker Posey, who is very persuasive.

Plus it’s Parker Posey, who is very persuasive.

Our protagonist and antagonist are both females. Both of them fight for what they want, and what they believe in, and both of them are strong, independent women. All I’m saying is gender roles swapped, hun. This isn’t about James Bond, it’s all about Pussy Galore.

Some of the things which date the movie (more than the fashion) are the fact that Alexander and Alexandra  WAITED IN LINE for Dujour tickets, and the cell phone Alexander uses is larger than some tablets on the market. But instead of taking away from the film, the way a computer in an 80s movie does, it adds to the charm. There’s something so right about seeing that phone in that scene, that it doesn’t feel dated.

I'm 90% sure that phone is in a museum somewhere.

I’m 90% sure that phone is in a museum somewhere.

The same goes for the MTV News clip, and most of the brand logos seen through the film. A lot changed in the last 14 years, but it’s clear a lot stayed the same.

One of the things which didn’t stay the same is TRL, and the fact that it doesn’t exist anymore. When the movie premiered and was aired, however, TRL and Carson Daly were HUGE. Parodying the set, and getting Carson, really cemented the movie as committing to this brainwashing of the tweens to twentysomethings, as a conspiracy.

Hitting on the popular pop-culture of the time wasn’t the only important aspect, so was staying true to it’s cartoon roots. When the Pussycats walk into the street and freeze while two guys walk by with the “#1 Band” sign I’m instantly brought back to Wayne’s World 2 when they ask the guys carrying the plate glass window why they’re doing it. The entire thing feels so cartoony, without being over the top. Which is exactly the tone the movie carries from beginning to end.

From the girls being signed without ever playing a note of music for Wyatt, to Alexandra on the plane saying she’s only there because she was in the comic book. The lines hit one after another on the Josie and the Pussycats comedic tone updated for modern audiences.

The entire sub-plot of Dujour trying to warn the Pussycats adds another layer of cartoonish ridiculousness. It’s set up like a crazy stalker, with just a shadow in the first two instances. But the writing on the mirror gives the audience the first note of hilarity. “Beware the music” it reads in red lip stick. Then, during the big reveal of everyone’s secrets at the end, Dujour arrive and reveal IT WAS THEM ALL ALONG.

You know he snuck a peak while sneaking into her overly McDonald's bathroom

You know he snuck a peak while sneaking into her overly McDonald’s bathroom

Even the visuals hit on comic book-y, without going to Scooby Doo lengths. Mel gets pulled away at the table while discussing whether to sign the contract looks cartoonish, but feels realistic. The chase scene in the aquarium with Alan M. and Josie gets sped up to look more cartoonish, but that happened to The Beatles in London for years. Dujour stumble around in body casts with their trademark shirt graphics painted on the casts.

At the end the movie also has a subtle message, (or I’ve just been writing this for 3 hours and think there’s a message) of: even if you’re an outcast for most of your life, and one day gain fame and fortune, don’t be an asshole. You’re probably going to get called on your shit, and brought down. The movie stays true to the rock star story, to the cartoon, and to its own hilariousness.

Join me next week, where I’ll prove to you Mystery Men is comic culture commentary, while also being hilarious (and having several award winning actors.

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