The Revision: Josie and the Pussycats

While the character of Josie was created by Dan DeCarlo in 1962, it wasn’t until 1969 that Josie and the Pussycats — both the band and the comic — first appeared. The comic follows smart and ambitious Josie (guitarist and vocalist), the level-headed Valerie (bass and backup vocals), and sweet but scatterbrained Melody (drums and backing vocals). They are sometimes successful, sometimes not, but consistently stick together and celebrate their friendship and music.

Cover of The Best of Josie and the Pussycats

The Josie and the Pussycats comics were an excuse just to tell whatever story the writers and artists had in mind. After all, there are several ghost stories (generally not about real ghosts, though) and even one where Josie gets possessed by an evil spirit. Mostly, though, they’re just about three girls in a band and the conflicts that can come with it. But the power of friendship always wins. That’s a universal theme that continues to feel relevant even more than 50 years since the creation of Josie and the Pussycats.

The earlier Josie and the Pussycats stories aren’t necessarily meant to be explicitly feminist, but the trio is independent and good at problem-solving. None of the stories are serious ones, but they still deal with men underestimating them constantly. It’s fun to see them always come out on top.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001, directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan) doesn’t seem to be based on any specific story from the comics, but it does capture their essence in a way that surprised me. Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Valerie (Rosario Dawson) and Melody (Tara Reid) are frustrated with how little traction they’re getting as a band (and the small paychecks that go with it) when they’re literally grabbed off the street by record executive Wyatt (Alan Cumming) and offered a record deal.

Of course, Wyatt and his label, MegaRecords, run by CEO Fiona (Parker Posey), has ulterior motives — they’re using pop music to deliver subliminal messages to teenagers to spend more and more on new products.

All of this, of course, unravels, and the honesty of rock and roll saves the day.

The Josie and the Pussycats movie was pretty widely panned when it was first released, and to some extent, I understand that. It’s reaching for some things it doesn’t quite achieve in its ambitious, satirical look at the pop-culture machine while still being silly and self-aware on purpose. It never quite lands on a tone outside of “big” and “colorful.”

But it’s a movie that time has been kind to. Everyone here is having so much fun. Reid plays Melody’s ditzy sweetness with a great amount of comedic timing and Posey (who is great in everything, mind you), brings a vulnerability to Fiona’s over-the-top confidence. Even when Cook is mostly asked to play it straight, everyone seems to know what movie they’re in and no one is taking it seriously.

The late ’90s and the extremely early ’00s were very much like this when it came to pop culture. Everything was shiny and teenagers were very much pushed into thinking brands were their friends. I think the abundance of logos is funny (and the directors apparently just included them — none were product placement). Still, I think that’s one place where the movie doesn’t quite work — yes, it’s over-the-top and gives the movie a slight dystopian feel, but there are still a lot of brand logos on display. Even if it’s meant to be a parody, it’s still advertising.

I also think the whole “popular music contains subliminal messages” bit has been done too much. Sure, it’s an obvious go-to (and I think it’s meant to feel obvious here) but I wish it had gone in a different direction. (The advertising of this era was incredibly manipulative and subliminal messages were not needed.)

It’s a great time capsule of style. The costuming is spot-on, with so many backless shirts and flared, low-rise pants. There is also body glitter and shiny, frosted eyeshadow. This is maybe not quite what everyone was wearing (it’s still a movie) but it’s definitely what young women aspired to look and dress like at the time.

Is this the definitive take on Josie and the Pussycats? No, but I don’t think there necessarily is one. Josie and the Pussycats can be many different things in many different eras and that’s part of the strength. I do think this movie is a good version, though, and does capture that despite everything, friendship always wins.