Twenty years ago this weekend, Universal released Josie and the Pussycats in theaters. The movie, which marks the only feature film adaptation of an Archie Comics property yet to have a theatrical release, starred Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid as the titular musical trio. They found themselves being manipulated by a giant record label, which was secretly a front for a government plan to strengthen the economy by using subliminal messages in popular music to brainwash teenagers into buying more stuff. The movie bombed at theaters, earning back about half of what it reportedly cost to make, but has gone on to become a cult classic in the intervening years.
And, as someone who has worked in the entertainment news industry for 22 years now and has written about virtually every release during that time, I can say with some confidence that Josie and the Pussycats is my favorite comic book movie. That isn't to say it's objectively "the best," even inasmuch as judging quality in a movie can be considered objective. That's to say it's my favorite, as a fan and as a critic.
That might seem strange, given that the movie was never a critical favorite, was lambasted by Archie Comics fans at the time of its release, and has a 2.61 out of 5 rating on ComicBook's own ratings system. The movie sent Rachael Leigh Cook to "movie jail," and since directing it, filmmakers Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan have not directed another feature film (they are currently showrunning the popular YouTube Original comedy Liza on Demand, so it's not al bad news for them). All in all, back in 2001 it would have been hard to imagine that we would still be talking about this movie at all 20 years later.
And yet, on Friday Universal's Twitter account changed its display name to "Universal is talking about #JosieAndThePussycats," brought the film's trio of stars together for a short reunion video, and have since been asking fans to talk about their favorite songs, moments, and quotes from the movie.
So what is it that has made Josie a cult classic, years after its release? There were a few things.
First of all, the movie's satire of early-2000s consumer culture and the music and entertainment industries of that time may have felt a little toothless to some at the time. This was, after all, an era where most comedies were laning into the mean, and "satire" was often code for attacking something. Josie's parodies were fairly affectionate; after all, you can't have Matthew Libatique (who shot a 98 Degrees music video) and Babyface (who produced N Sync) work on your parody of a boy band and have it be too caustic, or it feels disingenuous.
That's a thing that has made the movie last, though; it's not mean, and while it satirizes popular culture, it never says "hey, this thing you love is bad, and you're bad for loving it." The movie is mostly about how, as a mass culture, we love ridiculous things and fall for obvious tricks. Because of that last bit, it has grown in esteem with audiences in much the same way Idiocracy has. In the last couple of years there have been plenty of "we're living in Idiocracy" jokes on social media, commenting on politics and the way they've become glorified boxing matches. In the same way, the ever-increasing prevalence of corporate culture and the ever-more-obvious way that entertainers are selling products to their audience have made some of Josie's most over-the-top elements part of our daily lives.
The movie is also beautifully shot by the aforementioned Libatique, who has been working with superstar director Darren Aranofsky since Pi and who has since been the cinematographer on movies like Iron Man and Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. The latter, with its bright colors and loud soundtrack, may owe a little of its DNA to Josie, although Libatique has said that he tries to approach each new project without looking back.
The absurdist humor and pop affectionate pop culture riffs of Josie and the Pussycats feel right at home in a post-Adult Swim world, but at the time, some people seemingly didn't know what to do with it. Esoteric references to classic TV shows like Adam-12 are the coin of the realm in things like Robot Chicken and Family Guy, but in 2001, nobody was really doing that.
There have been plenty of critics and fans who have said that Josie was ahead of its time, and in certain ways that's true, too. Maybe not to the extent or in all the ways that people mean it, but it's hard to argue that a movie that centers on three young women, which goes out of its way not to sexualize them and in which there is never a question that the male characters see them as equals...well, that wasn't common back then. Women-led movies have become much more prominent in Hollywood since The Hunger Games broke a bunch of records, but in 2001, it was rare to have 3 young women at the head of a big studio movie (and one with a woman as one of the directors, too). The movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and Alan M gets the "thankless girl role," played perfectly by Batwoman's Gabriel Mann.
The movie's soundtrack, which went gold even at the time, makes it an impressive achievement as a movie musical -- a genre that wasn't in fashion in 2001 but to which the market has been at least marginally more friendly since. It would be silly to claim that a movie about a band having musical elements was part of why it initially did not resonate with audiences, but in hindsight it seems fair to note that the music, and how it's used in the film, has been helpful in connecting with a larger audience later.0comments
Josie and the Pussycats is also a movie where every person in the cast is rock-solid. Even minor roles -- "The Japanese guy," who gets a bit of physical comedy but no spoken lines, is played by iZombie's Hiro Kanagawa -- really deliver, and it makes great use of both stars on the Tara Reid/Parker Posey order and characters actors like Tom Butler (Freddy vs. Jason) and Paolo Costanzo (who is a much bigger star now and only counts here becuase nobody knew what he was capable of when he was cast in Josie). It also gives Missi Pyle some more geek cred, giving her a second cult classic after Galaxy Quest.
The movie is on HBO Max, so you should check it out if you haven't. It's easy to look at a teen-girl-pop-punk-powered Archie adaptation and think "yeah, not for me," but you might be surprised. Just don't get mad at us if you suddenly want a Big Mac after.