Music Movie Mondays: The “punk rock prom queens” of Josie and the Pussycats
Today is my birthday. To commemorate it, I thought about reviewing Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, as the semiotically-dense love letter to glam rock ranks amongst my faves. However, that’s a “film” that reflects favorably upon my tastes. It doesn’t necessarily speak to the sort of movie I could put on whenever and enjoy each time. Center Stage is such a movie. As is, for this series’ purpose, Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s 2000 adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats, their follow-up to the delightful Can’t Hardly Wait.
Furthermore, today is my 27th birthday. Music geeks know this a dangerous age for rock stars, as it’s the year that they die. In Josie and the Pussycats — and in my own mind when conspiracies take hold – these “accidents” are caused when idols become cognizant of the corporate puppet master, who they cruelly cut the strings and carve out a new marionette. Such is the fate of boy band Du Jour (played to perfection by Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, and Alexander Martin). They die in a plane crash after they start fighting and asking manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) too many questions.
Under the heel of Mega Records’ exec Fiona (Parker Posey), Frame must find a new hit band. Enter Riverdale band the Pussycats, who Frame literally runs into on the street. He signs them without hearing a note (something Arista exec Clive Davis reportedly attempted with Jeff Buckley) because music is an inconsequential part of the product that can be molded to fit a marketable image. They go to #1 in a week, but unwittingly sell their souls and alienate their humble base in the process.
It’s fitting for several reasons that I like Josie and the Pussycats. For one, I was a fan of the Archie comics growing up, though was always biding my time between boring love triangles so that the Riverdale gang could begin band practice.
Thus, I became more interested in the Josie spin-off series, as it featured an all-female band and practice and gigs were built into the premise. I liked band manager Alexander Cabot III’s sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle), who had a derivation of my name and sported a skunk stripe. I hoped she’d stop being jealous over Josie and form her own band.
Space cadet drummer Melodie Valentine was blonde, and therefore of little interest to me. Singer/guitarist Josie McCoy was level-headed, altruistic, and had commercial appeal. My favorite band member was bassist Valerie Brown, who was cool, smart, and talented. She clearly should’ve fronted the band. In a bit of karmic justice, the immensely likeable Rosario Dawson ended up having the most successful film career following her turn as the perenially snubbed Brown. We all know what happened to Tara Reid, though we can debate whether her minor part in The Big Lebowski or her leading role in Taradise is better than her turn as Melodie. Rachel Leigh Cook plateaued with She’s All That, a movie that gave her character the name of two Winona Ryder characters but couldn’t make good on the promise of becoming her Millenial successor because she mistook playing deadpan for being one-note.
(Aside: If you’re looking for an actress who can mine complex emotions out of bemused stoicism, I’d direct your attention toward Alia Shawkat’s performance as Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development.)
For another, the movie’s original music is great. It was written by folks like Babyface, that dog’s Anna Waronker, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, and (gulp) Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz. McCoy’s vocals are provided by Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley, who’s far more convincing with her delivery than Cook.
Finally, the adaptation is a sharp satire of a booming music industry moments before its collapse. This movie is preoccupied with the machinations of capitalism and how it engineers youth culture and sublimates mind control to keep the economy chugging along on a steady diet of TRL, a platform it later used for promotion. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique and art directors Richard Cook and Kelvin Humenny encapsulate the era’s glossy disposability while barely embedding its product placement. It serves as a relic for the chain record store as culture mecca, thus further enforcing that the market is fickle but bodies and bottom lines can always accomodate it. And its ability to blur the line between simulation and celebration lets no one off the hook. I may very well share a kinship with the “nonconformist” Siouxsie and the Banshees fan who claims not to listen to top 40 pablum, as I was staunchly of this mindset when this movie came out. I also frequented Sam Goody to buy overpriced CDs recommended Rolling Stone and Spin.
Serendipitously, Josie tanked at the box office.
Like Nathan Rabin, I don’t intend to oversell the movie’s satirical elements, as it ends with the band becoming successful “on their own terms” And while I love Posey and Cumming’s campy turns as major label baddies, there’s something so obvious about revealing them to be high school losers who want to sit at the cool kids’ table. Also, Posey’s use of a lisp for comedic effect smacks of ableism and recalls Jim Carrey’s turn as The Cable Guy‘s titular villain. FAIL.
(Note: The friend who loaned me her DVD for this review pointed out that Posey chose to give Fiona a lisp, which is discussed in the DVD commentary. In the script, Fiona was originally written as having an eating disorder, which Posey rejected as being ridiculous and obvious. Points for Posey, but I still wish Fiona wasn’t pathologized.)
Yet I still like this movie and will proclaim its merit for years to come. This probably means I’ve been brainwashed.