20 Years Ago Josie And The Pussycats Flopped, But Its Soundtrack Deserves Another Listen
Like 85% of 21st century movie characters, Josie And The Pussycats started out as comic book characters. Josie McCoy (first known as Josie Jones, then Josie James) was a teenage girl, part of the Archie Comics universe; she had her own comic beginning in 1963, in which she had typical teenage adventures with two friends, Melody Valentine and Valerie Brown. In 1969, they formed a band. A year later, during the 1970-71 TV season, Hanna-Barbera Studios turned the comic into an animated series. (N.B.: Valerie was the first Black female character in a Saturday morning cartoon show.)
The first 16 episodes set up the trio’s musical activities (touring, recording sessions) as the springboard for Scooby-Doo-esque adventures, solving mysteries and foiling supervillains. In its second season (1972-73), the show got even weirder, as the group was launched into space, and had adventures on other planets.
The comic continued until the early ’80s, and the characters appeared in one-offs here and there in the ’90s, but generally speaking, Josie And The Pussycats were mostly forgotten by the turn of the millennium, which may explain the unfortunate reception the 2001 movie version received.
On the surface, Josie And The Pussycats was an almost perfectly timed movie. Its storyline — that the music business was using pop hits as a vehicle to pump subliminal messages into kids’ heads, turning them into consumerist zombies — was ideal for 2001. The previous year had been the apotheosis of glossy turn-of-the-century pop, with the release of Britney Spears’ Oops…I Did It Again, NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, and Backstreet Boys’ Black & Blue, all dominating pop culture via MTV’s Total Request Live. The year as a whole marked the peak of CD sales in the US. A sharp, funny satire of this cultural moment should have been a blockbuster, and the movie was comically solid, poking fun at product placement, Behind The Music-esque storytelling tropes, and more. The performances — Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie, Rosario Dawson as Valerie, and Tara Reid as Melody — were individually and collectively strong. But it didn’t click with the public. The movie didn’t even make back its budget, and received mostly negative reviews.
In a 2017 interview with The Fader, Harry Elfont, who wrote and directed the film with partner Deborah Kaplan, said, “It was a movie about these girls that was aimed at teenage girls, or younger. But at the same time we wanted to make a very dark satire about commercialism … There was a certain point during the production where we looked at the dailies and I had that moment of panic like, Oh, fuck. We’re making a cult movie. I can see what’s happening.”
Indeed, the movie found its audience on home video. Retrospective reviews from the AV Club and the LA Times praised its perceptive satire and argued that it was even more relevant years later than at the time of its release. In 2017, Alamo Drafthouse screened the movie in LA to celebrate the reissue of its soundtrack on vinyl, perhaps the ultimate music-biz accolade at this point. And that’s what we’re really here to talk about. Like the movie itself, the Josie And The Pussycats soundtrack — released 20 years ago this Saturday — is better and more ambitious than it really needed to be.
The movie could have been just a sidelong slap at youth culture by people from a previous generation, but it never made the lazy mistake of asserting that pop music was bad. The artists were unwitting victims of the scam, just like their fans. On a similar line, how many songs by a fake movie band do you think you actually need to come up with for the movie? Two, maybe three? How about eight, plus two well-chosen covers and a re-recording of the TV cartoon show’s theme song, written, produced, and performed by some of the most talented players in alternative pop?
By going the extra mile with the music, the movie’s producers were following the blueprint established by the TV show. In 1970, the first songs by “Josie And The Pussycats” were released on Capitol. The vocalists were Cathy Dougher (“Josie”), Cheryl Ladd (“Melody”), and Patrice Holloway (“Valerie”), and the music was produced by La La Productions, a team that included people who’d also made music for the Monkees and the Partridge Family. The various singles they released, and their sole album, included covers of the Carpenters’ “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” and Bobby Sherman’s “La, La, La (If I Had You)” along with original songs written by La La.
The music was well-crafted late-’60s pop, part soul and part country, employing sophisticated string and horn charts and a slew of prominent session players including Elvis Presley’s longtime bassist and drummer, Jerry Scheff and Ronnie Tutt. Listening to them today, it’s impossible to tell they were created as the soundtrack to a cartoon; they could easily be mainstream pop singles of the time that just never quite took off.
The 2001 version of Josie And The Pussycats had a very different sound. Though Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was the executive producer of the movie’s soundtrack, the soul elements of the group’s first incarnation were entirely absent. Instead, the songs were collectively written by alt-indie power pop all-stars, including the late Adam Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne, Matthew Sweet, Jason Falkner of Jellyfish, Dave Gibbs and Steve Hurley of Gigolo Aunts, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Anna Waronker of that dog., and Kay Hanley and Michael Eisenstein of Letters To Cleo, with Hanley serving as the voice of Josie.
Elfont told The Fader, “We told Kenny the sound we were going for. At the time the touchstone was kind of like an all-woman Blink-182 — a power-pop band with a bit of a punk feel. And Kenny … was very helpful in terms of resources and bringing people in that he thought might be great players, or add something to the songwriting group.”
Initially, five Pussycats songs were written and produced with Edmonds, including the single “3 Small Words” (co-written with Elfont and Kaplan) and the acoustic ballad “You Don’t See Me.” Both of these are really good, guitar-bass-drums pop songs. “3 Small Words” pairs sexy-rebel verses with a chorus about dumping a dishonest, unworthy dude, all laid over a hard-charging riff and blasting drums. It’s a perfectly constructed headphone anthem for a tween girl in search of her inner rock ‘n’ roller. “You Don’t See Me” is the flip side, a sad tale of unrequited love, with subtle organ bolstering the acoustic guitars.
But as the album progressed, the directors realized they needed a few more, slightly tougher tracks to emphasize the girls’ punky, garage-band side. Hanley told The Fader, “We did all of [the Babyface-produced songs] out here in LA. So when that was done, I went back home. A couple of weeks later — maybe months, I’m not really sure — I got a call saying, ‘Hey, they’re gonna actually do a soundtrack for the movie, we’re gonna cut three or four more songs. Can you do it?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ We did the [second] round in Boston at Q Division, which is where we made all the Letters To Cleo records. Adam Schlesinger drove up from New York to Boston and we holed up for a couple weeks.”
The five tracks Schlesinger produced included the two cover songs, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and Johnny O’Keefe’s “Real Wild Child,” plus “I Wish You Well” and “Come On,” the tracks with the most guitar crunch. The former is one of only two songs on the record with a sole composer credit; it’s by Anna Waronker, and has a grunge-pop feel with a catchy chorus. (The other one is “Pretend To Be Nice,” written by Schlesinger.) “Come On” has 10 credited writers, which explains its stitched-together feel: It’s like about six different power-pop songs jammed together.
(The album also includes two songs by DuJour, the boy band that appears in the movie; they’re basically perfect pastiches of that style, with “Backdoor Lover” prefiguring the Lonely Island.)
The idea that a crew of professionals was enlisted to create songs for a movie about a fictional band that doubled as a satire of the commercialism and artifice of the pop music industry is a kind of extra-thick meta-irony, but the movie soundtrack winds up being a testament to craft. These are really good songs, no matter their origins. Which is kind of pop music in a nutshell, right?