12 Rock ‘n’ Roll Facts About Josie and the Pussycats
By Garin Pirnia
The spring of 2001 was a strange time: It was pre-9/11, and boy bands and pop singers dominated the Billboard charts. Then, on April 11, came the live-action Josie and the Pussycats movie, based on the Archie Comics graphic novel series and 16 episodes of a short-lived Hanna-Barbera animated TV show from the early 1970s (plus an additional 16 episodes of the spin-off, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space). The comic book, cartoon, and movie followed an all-female rock band, led by Josie McCoy (Rachael Leigh Cook in the film) and the Pussycats: Tara Reid as Melody Valentine, and Rosario Dawson as Valerie Brown.
Instead of doing a straightforward adaptation, writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (both of Can’t Hardly Wait fame) used the film as a means to comment on the corporatization of America by featuring nonstop logos, and a subversive—and satirical—plot. (Zoolander, which had a similar premise, was released five months after Josie and the Pussycats.) Moviegoers didn’t quite comprehend the film, and the movie grossed just shy of $15 million worldwide—less than half of its $39 million budget.
The soundtrack—featuring songs written by Fountains of Wayne, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Matthew Sweet, and The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin—sold an impressive 500,000 copies. But 15 years later, the film has become a cult classic, with a now-older audience understanding what the film was trying to communicate. Here are 12 purrfect facts about Josie and the Pussycats.
1. HARRY ELFONT AND DEBORAH KAPLAN WANTED TO MAKE A “GUILTY PLEASURE” PICTURE.
Deborah Kaplan told the Los Angeles Times that she and Harry Elfont set out to make Josie a “guilty pleasure,” and wanted to include the often ignored demographic of teenage girls. With the inclusion of satirical elements, they hoped the movie would be perceived as smart, not dumb. “We want to make sure people know it’s a smarter movie than you think it is,” Elfont said. “That’s been the challenge throughout, trying to make a movie that could satisfy both audiences, without disappointing everyone. You can be making fun of it, but at the same time, if it’s fun, what’s the difference?"
2. ROSARIO DAWSON GOT A BAD PERM FOR HER ROLE.
“I got my hair permed, which was a horrible idea, especially when it grew back with straight roots,” Dawson said during a Reddit AMA. “I remember feeling like Macy Gray compared to these other girls. Because of my big curly hair, I was so much taller and bigger than these other girls, who were so tiny they were like the size of my thigh, and just laughing hysterically with them because my character was always the odd one out.”
Hair issues notwithstanding, Dawson enjoyed making the movie because of its powerful messages. “I’d have mothers come up to me and be like, ‘This is the first brown doll I can give my daughter, so thank you,’” she told Indiewire. “That film has a ton of messages. I think that movie was ahead of its time. When I get the opportunity to do something like that, I love it. I love also doing movies strictly for the entertainment value. I love storytelling. But when something like this comes up, it’s a perfect storm.”
3. THE DIRECTORS FELT THEY WERE MAYBE TOO SUBTLE WITH THE PRODUCT PLACEMENTS.
More than 70 logos appear throughout the film, including ones from Starbucks and McDonald’s; Puma donated thousands of T-shirts but Gap and Nike declined to participate. Despite the rampant use of the branding, the corporations weren’t paid for the advertising. Elfont and Kaplan used the product placements as satirical tools, but only half of the audience seemed to understand it. “The fact that there’s people who don’t really recognize it’s a joke, that’s how bad everything else is,” Elfont told the Los Angeles Times. He said teenagers related to it on a “wish-fulfillment” level; grown-ups got the satire, but the rest took the movie “a little too much at face value.”
“And they wrote on their test cards, ‘I’m so offended, that you would try to sell stuff through this movie and who do you think we are!’ And, that’s what we’re making fun of,” Kaplan said. “Why would we have an Evian sign inside the whale tank? Maybe we were too subtle with it?”
Elfont explained he didn’t think they were being cynical but were trying to convey malfeasance with the branding. “I think all we’re saying is be aware that this stuff is happening and make a choice.”
“The message of the movie is, be an individual,” Kaplan said. “If some little girl is wearing a T-shirt that says Josie and the Pussycats, I’d rather that they got the message of the movie, which is, ‘I’m going to do whatever I want to do.’ Not, ‘Oh, I want McDonald’s now because I saw it in a movie.’”
4. ALEXANDER CABOT III KNEW THE MOVIE WOULD BE “A HUMONGOUS FLOP.”
Actor Paulo Costanzo played Alexander Cabot, the manager of the Pussycats. In a 2009 interview with Movieline, he talked about being aware of the film’s cult following, and what he thinks about it now. “I think it’s a cool movie,” he said. “I was kind of aware while shooting it that it wasn’t going to be a big commercial success, and I felt bad. Like, ‘Guys, do you realize this movie’s gonna be a humongous flop?’ But there’s this faux-nerdy intelligentsia crowd that seems to really, really love it because of its references to how ridiculous pop marketing is.”
5. THE REAL JOSIE DIED A FEW YEARS AGO.
Archie Comics artist Dan DeCarlo created Josie and the Pussycats (and the comic Sabrina the Teenage Witch) in the 1950s, basing Josie McCoy on his wife, Josie Dumont. The couple met in Belgium, and Josie didn’t speak English. “We communicated with drawing,” the real Josie told The New York Times. “He would draw things for me to make me understand what he had in mind. He was really so amusing. Instead of just using words he would use cartoons to express himself. Right away we knew that we were meant for each other.”
Once, when the couple went on a Caribbean cruise, her husband felt she shouldn’t wear a rabbit outfit. “She wanted to go as a bunny and I said, ‘Everyone’s going as a rabbit.’ So I designed the [cat] costume,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Soon after, the famous hairstyle arrived. “One day I came in with a new hairdo with a little bow in my hair, and [Dan] said, ‘That's it!’” Josie recalled. In December 2001, just months after the movie’s release, Dan died; Josie passed away in 2012.
6. KIM GORDON WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE FIONA ROLE.
The filmmakers wanted the film to be as “cutting-edge” as possible, so they contacted a woman named DeeDee Gordon, who analyzed teen culture with her website Look-Look.com. DeeDee suggested they hire Kim Gordon (no relation), co-lead singer of cool band Sonic Youth, to play Fiona, the nefarious CEO of MegaRecords. The directors jettisoned the idea, thinking Kim would be too cool to play Fiona, considering the film mainly parodied bubblegum pop mainstreamers Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. Instead, Parker Posey did a great job hamming it up as Fiona.
7. THE DIRECTORS INTENTIONALLY HAD MELODY’S CLOTHES BE LOOSE-FITTING.
What many people remember about the comics and cartoons are the custom-fitting catsuits the girls wear, but Kaplan and Elfont eschewed that look—though, the girls still slip on cat ears and tails—and opted for something different for Melody. “We actually told our costume designer we wanted all her clothes to look like you could just pull one string and they’d fall off,” Elfont said.
“Tara’s just so sexy,” Kaplan said of Reid. “Tara has her own way of looking at things, and it’s really unique and it’s special and it’s just very Melody. Not to say that Tara is not intelligent, because she’s very smart. She just has her own way of seeing things.”
8. THE SEQUEL WOULD’VE TAKEN PLACE IN OUTER SPACE.
After the initial 1971 run of the original 16 episodes, the TV series was resurrected as Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, which ran between 1972 and 1973, but only lasted an additional 16 episodes. If the movie had led to a sequel, the directors said the Pussycats would’ve been orbited into space. “I think there’s no way you can’t do a sequel in outer space,” Elfont said. “Although we do reference it in their music video within the movie: It takes place on a star field, so it’s kind of the Pussycats in outer space.”
9. KAY HANLEY WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO SING AS JOSIE.
Before the soundtrack’s producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds hired the Letters to Cleo frontwoman to write a couple of the movie’s songs and to sing Cook’s vocals, another woman had been brought on. “He’s only worked with, and I mean almost exclusively, black artists,” Hanley told Stumped Magazine. “This being a rock record, he remembered he’d worked with this singer years back who he thought sounded like a white rock singer. She had the most phenomenal voice, but once the songs started to get down on tape, everybody was like this voice would not be coming out of Josie … you know, Rachael Leigh Cook’s mouth. She didn’t lose the job because she wasn’t good, I think she lost the job because she was too good. But she wasn’t anybody famous.”
Once the producers let the original Josie go, Hanley snagged the job. “Not without a fight though,” Hanley told Popdose. “There was a lot of kicking and scratching and screaming and fighting,” and the producers “kept me hanging around for a while … I eventually heard they were flying in Tracy Bonham to sing Josie’s part. So I quit! But Kenny brought me back, and it wound up being a very good thing that he did.”
Despite all of her hard work on the film, Hanley felt the movie could’ve turned out better than it did. “I thought it was going to be a great film, but it ended up not being executed as well as anybody had hoped.”
10. THE PUSSYCATS LEARNED TO PLAY THEIR INSTRUMENTS FOR THE MOVIE.
Before starring in the movie, none of the actresses played instruments, so the filmmakers sent them to band camp to learn. “I don’t have any particular musical influences, but we watched The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, and stuff like that, because there aren’t too many girl groups who play their own instruments, except those from the ’80s,” Tara Reid told the BBC. “I became pretty good. Even a professional drummer couldn’t have played those three songs better than I could. There’s no way. The same with the other girls.” In the movie, the girls are actually playing the instruments, though they lip-synch the songs.
11. ALAN CUMMING THINKS HE IS “SHAMELESS” IN THE MOVIE.
Alan Cumming plays Du Jour’s villainous band manager, Wyatt Frame, who tries to murder the band. On his website he wrote that he and co-villain Parker Posey were “shameless” in the film. “It’s some of the most shameless acting I’ve ever done, and that is saying something ‘cause I’ve done some shameless acting in my time. I also have this big hunk of plastic roast beef from the set in my house.”
Roast beef aside, the actor told Indiewire he felt the movie wasn’t marketed well. “It’s a parody of itself, d’you know what I mean? The studio didn’t get that. They marketed it the wrong way. It should have been people like us. It should have been an older audience. We would have got the wit of it, what it was trying to do. And it was marketed for girls like the ones in the story and they were like [makes confused face] ‘Whaaaaa?’”
12. BROADWAY PERFORMED THE MOVIE’S SOUNDTRACK.
Last December, several prominent members of Broadway shows gathered to perform the film’s soundtrack live. Krystina Alabado (American Idiot), Lauren Chapman (Kinky Boots), and several performers from Spring Awakening participated in the show. “The concert will feature all the music from the soundtrack, including the hit songs ‘3 Small Words,’ ‘Spin Around,’ and ‘Pretend to Be Nice,’” read the press release. “And of course no Josie and the Pussycats concert would be complete without a couple of songs by our favorite boy band, Du Jour.”