***/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming
written and directed by Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont
by Bill Chambers I have this sinking feeling that the adolescent demographic--the studio's target audience, not that of filmmakers Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont--resented Josie and the Pussycats because it portrays them as sheep, but the film gives young adults far more credit than I do in blaming the herd mentality on a subliminal technology. Josie and the Pussycats' formulaic narrative settles on a girl group's internal rivalry that a scheming handler (Alan Cumming) puppeteers (for no good reason, when one stops to think about it), though keen, enthusiastic performances paint over lapses in ingenuity. For the record: Tara Reid, as dumb Pussycat drummer Melody, makes off with the best lines (wait 'til you hear what she'd do if she could travel through time); Cumming is note-perfect; and Parker Posey wins us over through sheer force of will as the deranged head of fictitious Mega Records.
The ideologically convoluted Josie and the Pussycats is based on an animated TV series and periodical from the hypocritical Archie Comics empire. In the 1950s, the company's artists were nailed by the Comics Code for drawing vaginas onto the armpits of various Riverdale characters. This and other skeletons stayed in the closet during the casting of Josie and the Pussycats: Because she co-starred in the risqué Kids, Rosario Dawson's name was initially met with vehement disapproval when broached for the role of Pussycat bassist Valerie, and her eventual "You messed with the wrong Pussy!" was even harder won. The company continues to peddle a sanitized version of America while capitalizing on innuendo and the whole Betty or Veronica dilemma/mystique; and lest we forget the era of Spire, the Christian outfit who published specialty issues of "Archie" in the Seventies. "The Spire logo is both phallic and vulvic at the same time," writes controversial 'net presence Poppy Dixon. It's an understatement.
What Archie Comics works so hard to sublimate, Kaplan and Elfont celebrated in their last effort as hyphenates, Can't Hardly Wait: teenage hedonism. They maintain a casual sweetness about young love in Josie and the Pussycats, but I'll bet that a lot of higher-ups still reached for the Kaopectate when apprised of the film's high-concept--a government-sanctioned, corporate-controlled enterprise that devises new trends and brainwashes the youth of America into accepting them by embedding hidden messages in prefab music. After record producer Wyatt Frame (Cumming) sacrifices Dujour, the boy band that knew too much (fastening a parachute, Wyatt, in a so-blatant-it's-sly reference to Don McLean's "American Pie," mutters to the pilot of Dujour's private jet: "Drive the Chevy to the levy"), he signs struggling garage band Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) and the Pussycats. They come to him in a living epiphany: upon nearly running them over, he sees, as Meat Loaf intones on the car radio, "paradise by the dashboard light." It's a great scene. Josie and the Pussycats is full of great scenes, although it lacks unity and thus, greatness.
I really admire Josie and the Pussycats. Kaplan and Elfont do the subversive content and the bubble-gum content--Josie and the Pussycats' memorable tunes (performed by the diverse talents of Kay Hanley, Bif Naked, and Matthew Sweet); Josie's unrequited love for fellow musician Alan M. (Gabriel Mann); the importance of friendship--equally well, but irony and sentimentality have never been friends. The incompatible tone renders both a little disingenuous. Even the visual approach is combative: Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who previously shot Requiem for a Dream, lends a grunge gleam to the ad-saturated sets; a sing-along in a hair salon looks like an outtake from David Fincher's The Game. An unmitigated box-office flop, Josie and the Pussycats is too edgy for its own good, ultimately, but I can and do appreciate the film's incorrigibility.
Don't let the simple "widescreen" banner mislead you: Josie and the Pussycats does not suffer from studio neglect on DVD. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is exquisite and faithful to the theatrical presentation, though while hot whites and smooth close-ups are pure Libatique, a few soft shots during the airplane sequence with Dujour seem slighty off-register. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes underutilize the surrounds to a large (and the same) degree, with only a virtual trip through Josie's Walkman and some explosive transitions triggering the rear channels. The climactic concert has less audio impact than it should because it happens in front of us instead of around us, however the music generally sounds warm and punchy.
Moving on, a commentary from Kaplan, Elfont, and producer Marc Platt gets off to a good start with the trio putting cynicism in its place by revealing that none of the omnipotent product placement was paid advertising. If Elfont gets a bit James Schamus (see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), with much of his sarcasm going down like lead balloons, the track nevertheless maintains momentum and insight. There is no commentary on the continuous segment of three deleted scenes, and that's a shame, since none of them deserved the axe--it would be nice to hear a defense for the cuts. Josie and the Pussycats sorely misses a department-store autograph session in which a bystander uses a Valerie doll to kill a spider that's trespassing on Josie's space.
Additional bonus material: "Backstage Pass", a by-the-numbers making-of ("Josie Cam" aside), half of which is plot summary--albeit abetted by gorgeous women, including Ms. Kaplan, doing the talking; Josie and the Pussycats' own "3 Small Words" video; hastily-made yet hilarious videos for the parodic Dujour's "Backdoor Lover" and "Dujour Around the World"; one of the theatrical trailers; cast and crew bios; and production notes. More detailed behind-the-scenes info is available via a DVD-ROM option, along with a weblink. Originally published: July 31, 2001.