RIORI Presents Installment #205: Harry Elfont & Debra Kaplan’s “Josie And The Pussycats” (2001)

The Gig…

The Band…

Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, Tara Reid, Alan Cumming and Parker Posey, with Gabe Mann, Paulo Costanzo, Missi Pyle and Carson Daly.

The Rider…

The life of a touring band rough. Whatever YouTube transmits those superstars’ 3 minutes of video hit fame takes interminably endless miles of gig between this bar to that beer bust. Very little reward for a sh*t-ton of earning your bones.

Josie and her punk pop trio, the Pussycats have been putting in their time, but no recording contracts are calling. Until the fickle of finger of fate taps them as the next big thing. All that gigging at sweaty bowling alleys are paying off! Some smarmy talent agent has the ‘Cats in his sight and readies them for fame and fortune!

Then again, as the old saw goes: be careful for what you wish for. All Josie and her friends ever wanted were a break, not a breakdown.

The Soundcheck…

The subject matter of Josie is near and dear to me. I’ve perhaps mentioned what an audiophile I am, but my insane iTunes library isn’t really relevant today. I know I’ve babbled on about my times on air at my old radio station WDIY, but that’s not the horse of the proper color. I might have mentioned my times in bands, either marching or garage but that’s not the bare nubbin. It’s how ugly the waning record industry is.

Ugly. I mean fascistic. I learned a lot about the integrity (or lack thereof) when it comes to record labels and their nefarious machinations. If that sounds sinister, it is. I’m putting it out there: more money for less art.

Chill. This in not going to be some hipster, snobbish screed. At least not on the whole. It’s tough to talk about your pet interest without getting all stinky and/or gatekeeping. But let’s be honest: consider stereotyping. Why do we do it? It’s to the quick. Kinda like assuming that every Deadhead is also a burner. Or that every member of the KKK is also a card-carrying member of the NRA also. I’m not saying they’re not. If the sheet fits wear it.

I’m just gonna tell you about what I learned back in my heady days of broadcasting (which also confirmed some suspicions). For one the FCC is very really strict about content. I mean really strict. As example, back in my radio days if there was a song that had “inappropriate content” in its lyrics (EG: profanity, explicit violence or sexual content, anything by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, etc) and if it somehow got aired there could be a very real fine waylaid on the station if there was a complaint filed. Especially if a sponsor made the call. A fine upwards to $30,000 in early 00’s ducats. I almost took a fall for a Black Grape song that went on air. It was an accident; I played the unedited cut while darting off to the bathroom. I never peed on the job ever again. Thirty grand would have bankrupted the station. No joke. The FCC keeps a very tight hold on the First Amendment, but parses out its value in the name of commerce. Such is laid at the feet of media giants IHeartMedia and others of such ilk (of which there are very few). As of this writing Cardi B is presently enjoying a lucrative music career. “WAP” can kiss my A. Black Grape calling you a “silly mother*cker” for listening was too direct a message I gather. Even now, all these years later I still don’t get it. What people want to hear versus what they are made to hear. That may be why I never made any money in radio broadcasting.

In addition to on air decency, the FCC has other curious rules about broadcasting protocol. For instance it is mandatory for station ID at the top of the hour (give or take five minutes). You know. “You have tuned into WXYZ FM” and so on. No big, but if that’s ignored—you guessed it—another finein the range of $3000 (early 00s dollars). Kinda steep I thought for just saying hello to faithful listeners. Not to mention the playlists. Ah, the playlists. Songs chosen had to be cleared by record company hacks who pimped out music critics that said what was what where on the charts and where what was could be on the charts. Kinda like taking to that strong-arm game at carnivals. Whatever rings that bell gets a prize. Cynical? No, not at all. It’s how business conducts itself and we got free CDs to shuffle through for on-air consideration. We were all in on the scam. Willingly or else we’d’ve received no swag at all. If our indie station got snubbed by a music site—say, like Slate—it would make our station absolute poison and anything given gratis once before (EG: free CDs, swag, ratings, etc) would dry up. It’s akin to why public TV stations hold pledge week. It’s selling Girl Scout cookies for ratings and a bigger budget. Sound ugly? It is.

Uglier still is how commercial radio (the last free medium in the world) has morphed into one big commercial, en toto. A great many of the local stations in my area have over a decade abandoned their format as soon as IHeartMedia bought them out. The changes were insidious. It felt like what happened to me the comic collector when Disney bought Marvel. The House Of Mouse’s business merger assured no interference in Marvel’s making their books, then all of a sudden Marvel titles were four bucks apiece. Prior first tier titles like Spider-Man were $3 apiece, lesser titles around $2. Sure, the quality of the books’ production didn’t change…but now the average high schooler couldn’t casually pick up an ish of the latest X-Men title on a whim with the change in their pocket. I used to work in a comic shop not far from the local high school, and back in the day this happened often. I let the kids rifle through the racks to check out the new sh*t, but were bummed out when I had to tell them they needed more cash (we didn’t take credit/debit. It was an expense the boss couldn’t afford). I even had to break the same news to the local college kids, some trying to buy some books for an assignment. All after the Disney acquisition and four bucks on all titles, including the Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl, the Avengers‘ nanny. We lost a lot of walk-in biz thanks to Disney’s non-interference with Marvel. Still to this day I never believed Disney was hot about literacy. Better to just watch.

Consider this: in Canada at least 30% of all broadcasting must be given over to Canadian content (including the French Quebecois). An example I saw was a televised award ceremony I caught on YouTube for everyone’s favorite Canadian power trio, Rush. It was the Juno Awards (Canada’s Grammys), and for the Lifetime Achievement award. Neil Peart, the band’s lyricist and drummer, thanked everyone in bursts of both English and French, acknowledging the Canadian honor system and keeping it as Canuck as possible.

The US has some similar stipulations, but only a passing semblance to our radio station Northern Neighbours. Namely commerce via media, which is quite American I must say. Consider our movie this week as precedent. Note all the ads. In every. Single. Scene. What was satire in Josie is rampant nowadays, so much so people seldom notice it anymore. Once upon a time, such behind the scenes influencing on the radio was regarded as criminal, despite common practice nowadays. Imagine, radio stations being paid to play certain content deemed fit by the sponsors so to better their gains through advertising. Sounds like typical American media business these days. Set the wayback machine 60 years and greasing plams at WIOU was a felony. Enough the grab the FBI’s attention.

History lesson!

It was called payola. DJs were lured with money by record producers to play their latest, hottest singles on heavy rotation. In return the station would get kickbacks. I’m fudging that definition a tad if only to make a relevant point. That practice was illegal back in the day, and still is. Nowadays its SOP, albeit shrouded in the murk of how music is distributed. The FCC is more concerned with halting digital piracy rather then having Harry Styles’ latest single leak on air. Since 90% of all commercial radio is operated by the IHeartRadio conglomerate the recording industries shunt an obscene amount of marketing, promos and horse trading to keep Nickelback on the air, no apologies given or expected. Precious little pop music from non-whites gain much traction on the radio anymore, at least with the nationwide broadcasts. Call me cynical, but how does payola differ from, say Bertelsmann pushing the latest single from Imagine Dragons in exchange for manipulating ad revenue? IHeartMedia is not interested in trap music, reggae, rock en Español, soca or J-Pop. No mass market money in it. Like movies, radio is a business. I’m not griping, only calling a spade a spade.


Remember what I said about nerdy gatekeeping? Gonna bend that truth. It was inevitable.

The point? IHeartMedia is all about sales, not promotion. Barring the whole payola “scam,” today Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, TikTok, YouTube channels and whatnot inform what might be profitable listening material, regardless of honest audience opinion or even appreciation. I know that all sounds backwards, but precious few people pester radio stations with requests; to play that track again, because it piqued some interest. Word of mouth on the radio is all but dead these days, and comments are easily ignored as a snowflake landing on your face. You are played to hear what the real gatekeepers have paid for you to hear. Everyone hates Nickelback, but they’ve sold millions of albums, and no one has ever downloaded any of their songs. Here, I have a photograph to show you.

Please prove me wrong.

A final note on this screed about how nowadays the listener isn’t respected by the radio. The three minute single format is as old as dust when it comes to broadcasting. The 45—the chosen single format for decades—was a relic when I was before a kid. Back in the 60s playing singles on 45s was sovereign. The biggest non-single single that topped the charts was the 7-plus minute opus that was Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” The tune demanded airplay via audience request. Give the public what they want. These days the public does not know what they want, save three minute disposable tunes. It’s easier to jam more commercials into the hour with three minute songs. Most folks don’t download the full albums anyway. Not cynicism, just acknowledging trends.

So what have we learned (besides I suck at not being a gatekeeper)? Modern commercial radio is more of a gatekeeper than I claim to be. It’s incredibly, terribly hard for flop sweat musicians that may hold onto a shred of “street cred” to make it without social media (which is not necessarily a bad thing), the FCC are mostly oblivious about any perversion the Bill Of Rights holds to prevent litigation on private, creative rights and no one is a Nickelback fan unless they prefer Labatt Blue to death.

Enough negativity. There are thousands of musicians right now toiling in the salt mines, making music for music’s sake. Y’all keep on toiling. The odds are against, but never quit mining.

There’s an appreciative audience out there someplace. They just might not listen to commercial radio…

The Setlist…

Josie (Cook), Val (Dawson) and Mel (Reid) are the pop punk trio the Pussycats. The last bastion of riot grrl rock in suburbia, because their snotty style is not the flavor in their hometown of Riverdale. The girls are friends to the end, and if the success they seek never happens, whatevs. They got each other and they all love making music. Isn’t that what matters?


Okay. They’ve paid their dues, played the dives and are quite rock ‘n’ roll, but their time is out of time. It’s the early 2000s and poppy boy bands like the current flavor DuJour are all the rage, not some homegrown garage band of girls, before God. There’s no room on the modern pop charts for gutbucket rock. Besides, it’s an industry open secret that girls don’t make for good rock stars. Especially those who make their bones via the local bowling alley. Good “wallpaper” maybe.

Sick of the rat race the ‘Cats take to busking at the local mall. Support local music in Riverdale! Riverdale isn’t interested. Josie and friends are brushed away into the beady eyes of talent scout Wyatt Frame (Cumming) from MegaRecords. Whisked away into Wyatt’s world of high finance music making, he assures the trio that they have the “it” factor; that je ne sais quoi. However scheming Wyatt does indeed know what’s what. Not only an overflowing back account, but also perfecting Mega’s CEO Fiona’s (Posey) plans for world domination. And we ain’t talking’ Beatlemania here.

It’s understood that the majority of pop acts are disposable, as is the revenue they create. Teens love digital media, social media, streaming media and media bias. Pair all that with disposable income and voila! Josie and company are the next big thing to come down the pike, whether they want/earned it or not. Sometimes you gotta sacrifice artistry for artifice. The price of fame.

Josie, Val and Mel have a choosy choice to make: Stardom or street cred?

The Takeaway…

As a courtesy I just want to say the following may come across as an extension of the The Rant. Just hear me out.

I first saw Josie at the local first-run drive-in in my little ‘ville back in 2001. I know. The concept of a first-run drive-in theater should’ve been dead as disco by the turn of the century. Surprise. It’s still there to this day. But more on that some other time.

I caught Josie with a friend and our respective girlfriends. We grew bored with film seeing very much where it was going. Years later the movie might’ve presaged TikTok, but there were no social media apps for your smartphone back then. Or apps. Or smartphones. All I had to work with was DSL and a Nokia 3300, which were secondary things used to interact with people—meaning face to face, mind you—to share opinions. That’s what my bored friend and myself did that evening, irritated by the message Josie was trying to spread. Actually “cautionary tale” is a better term. We wandered the circuit of the drive-in smoking, sharing hits of a bottle of vodka. The place was BYOB, but you had to have a designated driver first. We didn’t. Instead we babbled on about what Josie was getting at and how the majority of audiences would not get it.

Fast forward 20 years later. Social media governs all. Josie‘s plot was prescient, and it irritated me. Why? My friend was an aspiring DJ; wheels of steel and such, but tooling around with Kazaa on your own only gets you so far. I had a similar sitch regarding my nascent DJ career (trivia and karaoke nights) that we agreed that most folks just don’t get it. Get what? Well, two things:

One, despite what American Idol purports making a living in music is very difficult. Takes one part talent, one part resolve and 100% luck. Maybe more than that. Perhaps a chicken sacrifice here and there. Anyway, us trying to make a go at it was a pie-in-the-sky affair, but we knew what was ultimately our roadblock: an audience. They do not know what they want until they hear it, but that takes time. A lot of hit-and-miss. Here’s an example of what I’m getting at.

In my hometown the go-to cover band were the Aardvarks. Singers and guitar slingers Mike and Jake are journeymen musicians in their own right, cutting and recording original stuff locally, and very well esteemed. Their Aardvarks project? Well, you might be treated to the most eclectic cover band ever, and I mean ever. I was a professional barfly for years following the ‘Varks exploits. The local club I frequented every Friday hired the ‘Varks monthly. The crowd lapped them up. And why not? They were a great band whose selection in songs was wide, varied and performed with much aplomb.

I grew to be buddies with Mike, who also enjoyed cool, obscure pop songs that would’ve never scanned by Katy Perry. I would always scream for Mike to play “my song” and he’d always smile and nod and rev up. “Sweet Jane,” “Life During Wartime,” “Jailbreak,” etc. I said they were eclectic, and the crowd always responded in kind even if they didn’t know the song. As a bonus, the sound guy was Rick from the local “classic rock” station. As much as he dug Zeppelin and the Stones he traded bootleg burnt Pere Ubu CDs with me, and told me about the shows he caught back when he “was my age.” None of this was the flavor in Columbus, but those on shore leave who dug wide-ranging rock, my club was the place to waste away your Friday. Sometimes Saturday, too.

What I am saying is playing music is not pretty, and earning an audience is akin to an illegal border crossing. But you make it across, wonders abound. Like free bootlegs.

Two, despite what Spotify dictates there is a galaxy more of music out there that is actively blooming and dying on the vine. To make money is this biz in this day and age you must always be in a hurry. Hustle culture, like Clive Davis running laps in a particle accelerator hurry. Like a colony of aphids speed dating. Better put check out this little interview between “Everything Music” producer/YouTube personality Rick Beato and well-seasoned writer/musicologist Ted Giola. I’ll wait.

Josie was a prescient, cautionary tale. We ain’t talking Nineteen Eighty-Four territory here. Like my circuit around the drive-in and later immersed in many cover songs that were not necessarily “hits” the folks behind the scenes really don’t get how music works. Heck, I don’t even know if musicians know how music works. But it does, and whether you play bass in some garage band, collect vinyl or just sing in the shower music is a touchstone. People resonate to music, either through passion or fashion. Josie‘s satirical bent illustrated this dynamic perfectly. Especially the fashion part.

This movie was a product of its time, but in a good way. Back in ’01 pop music was lacquered in all things Britney and pop-punk had yet to gain mainstream acceptance. I think blink-182’s Enema Of The State creeping around eventually ushered that scene in. Just like those goofy misfits the Pussycats were of and out of their time. The co-directors got their start in the record biz, and Josie is very deliberate social commentary on conspicuous consumerism. As the movie treaded on from silly to absurd you sorta got the notion that Elfont and Kaplan had a ton of baggage to unload about the commercial sins of the recording industry. However instead of getting all Jello Biafra on audiences’ ass they knew how to catch bees with honey than a Justin Bieber single. Why rant when you can thumb your nose?

Josie is one big, satirical, not very winking cartoon based on neener neener. Makes sense though since the flick was a sorta comic book adaptation. The Pussycats debuted in the Archie & Friends comic books that will probably be printed until our Sun goes nova. Later the ‘Cats got their own cartoon, which kinda spoofed the days in the life of a touring pop band. Sure, antics abounded but was in the Scooby-Doo vein. I tuned into reruns for the tunes. Doubtless our directors did to and walked away with a puckish sense of alarm requiring a clarion call the likes the town crier at Pompeii should have announced:

Just go with it! Right before the pyroclastic flow buried him.

Enough fooling for now. The directors deserved props for bringing a 21st Century sensibility to its charming 70s cartoon counterpart. Josie covered all the basics: troubles with scoring gigs, touring mishaps, exotic locales and in-house good natured creative bickering. Heck, the movie gave a nod to the pseudo-Scooby mystery to uncover. I got to watching this and asking myself that if this version of Josie may make the brutes check out the original toon. Of course not. At the time of this installment the comic shop I frequent has yet to run out of the latest issues of Dr Strange. All three of his titles. That’s kinda a bummer, but also redolent of the insidious message Elfont and Kaplan tried to push. This movie must’ve bothered more than a few record label bigwigs. That tickled me.

Same goes for Josie‘s damned near perfect casting. Choice for the time. Our three leads were the best incarnations of their animated analogs. Cook was your everyday everygirl would-be punky pop singer. Think Hayley Williams by way of Hilary Duff circa Lizzie Maguire. Just a driven and determined rock ‘n’ roll player, no more, no less, just fine. Like I said, everygirl with all the awkwardness that comes with it. Cook’s Josie was endearing, but not sappy. Just comic, the comic book analog. I can’t stress enough how well the actors fell into their somewhat limited roles in a comic book adaptation of a cartoon into a live-action movie that didn’t lose any charm. Sort of.There was that message thing, or whatever. Overthinking this stuff gets awkward.

Honorable mention to Missi Pyle, BTW.

Dawson’s Val was the perfect live-action incarnation of her cartoon counterpart. The smart one, who always knew what to say, a grounding element, who played music for fun and maybe it might go somewhere. That and keeping her ear always to the floor. There was something rotten with MegaRecord. Where did the golden goose of an opportunity come from? Who the crap is funding all this promo? Like I said, in the comics/cartoon Val was the practical one, always delivering the “It’s not my fault” with a Han Solo ring to it. Predictable considering, but just shaddap and watch.

The cherry on the sundae was Reid’s Melody as salt of the earth. More like a sand castle. If there were an Oscar category for Best Channeling, Reid would’ve won hands down. She was a riot, embodying the idiot savant that her cartoon drummer, blurting out the right thing to say at the wrong time and the opposite. Reid was so endearing as the “dumb blonde” she was the dollop of Kool-Whip on your Jello. I loved her being oblivious to everything. I loved how she used her drumsticks to have dinner. Her best role since American Pie. Hey, again, this was a comic book movie so I went along with it.

What would under the radar live-action cartoon heroines be without some slithering, over the top baddies to piss in the punchbowl? Cumming and Posey did a delightful job in mimicry regarding the standard Josie foes. Never as solid as their hare-brained schemes claim to be and not the smartest folks in the room. In short, those two romping it up. called out Cumming’s Wyatt was a bad dude. I’d rather say reptilian, delighting in being the bad guy. He was aware he was the bad guy and relished it. Most movie villains never consider themselves as evil or wrong. Consider Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. No reason or reflection for the chaos he created. The world burning like Alfred claimed. Wyatt just loves a good mustache twirling. Very funny, with no apologies. I like that in a cartoon bad guy.

Posey was her Darla on ether. A bubblegum pop diva with no songs to sing. That and seeming never got over her loss as Prom Queen. Petty, purple and puerile, she was a perfect bully still hell bent on who brought her to a lowly state of her own creation. Think the Wicked Queen from Snow White with a bigger budget. The payoff was beyond ridiculous, yet still satisfying.

This movie had ADHD. Or at least invited it. I was quite dizzy come act three.

I repeat, again, that this was an early entry into the comic book movie adaptation. Back when we and I saw the original Spider-Man movie courtesy of the erudite schlock-miester Sam Raimi, many of us Marvel zombies were drooling to see if Sam The Man got the feel right. He did, and in fact set the gold standard that the MCU exploits. Before any of that claptrap, the Josie team dabbled their toes. Too bad very few if ever took the dip. I keep hammering this because the hoi polloi is well-armed with a battery of screwdrivers.

*takes drink*

Here I am. Go on. Sorry. Moving on.

The co-directors did a stellar job bringing a comic book sensibility to a motion picture, but again I’m not talking Spider-Man. Not superheroes. My folks were fans of the Archie comics up to my age now (and don’t ask how old). I read a few as a kid and they were always winking funny; the stories made fun of themselves. So did this movie adapt. I know I spoke at length about folks watching this would not “get it.” That was kinda marching around the issue. Even the simplest films can make a big noise if you’re open to it. Like bootleg Pere Ubu concert recordings.

Back again to my stroll around the drive-in, ruminating over the movie’s tone, I could net help but get flustered. Sure, Josie was no Paths Of Glory or All That Jazz. Cautionary tales of deception and denial, but now made relevant if only on a diluted PG level. I know. Give me some wiggle room; trying to wrench some weight from a fluffy film. Why bother? Because in the past two decades there have been precious few blatant, cautionary movies. The only prominent one I could figure was Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which was once telling and popular and over 30 years old. Josie was nowhere near as heavy, but the message was a second-cousin. Forces beyond your control are aligned against your best intentions. I know, kinda heady, but when was the last time you saw a film with a message you could relate to, or at least digest? We may never have to face the ordeal of having to engage in a legal matter regarding God vs Darwin in Inherit The Wind, but we can all get behind The Buddy Holly Story. The outsider just doing his thing trying to make folks happy against “The Man’s” demands. That being said, isn’t that a part of rock ‘n’ roll? Wasn’t that Darrow’s fate? No such thing as bad press being an outsider.

Dangerous fun is the best kind of fun, and nowhere near as dangerous.

The Response…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Subtle as an exploding cigar at a state funeral, but still goofy funny. The soundtrack trumps the movie. Was that the point? Or was it?

The Encore…

  • “Does anyone have change for a tampon?”
  • Good Lord. Frosted tips everywhere.
  • “Maybe because I was in the comic book?” “What?” What?
  • Are those cat teasers?
  • “The walls are mushy!”
  • Okay. That Evian placement was quite a stretch.
  • “The tough make lemonade!” That’s actually a pretty good way to look at things.
  • This was the role Reid was meant to play.
  • “I swear on my bus pass!”
  • FOR SALE. Nailed it, but still clever.
  • “SEGA!”
  • Fun fact: Val was the first ever animated black female in the main cast of a cartoon. Not a supporting player in the background, but a co-star. And who says only now cartoons can be topical?

The Next Stop…

Mirabel Madrigal is in crisis. The Madrigal clan all have magical gifts except her. Might be just being born at the right time, or teenage angst, or most likely that Mirabel just lacks any feminine Encanto.


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