Saturday, July 26, 2014

Josie and the Pussycats (Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 2001)/Josie and the Pussycats (Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax, 2001)

Inspired by Ryan Maffei (check out his crazeballs tumblr where he lets forth on Xgau's 1970s guide), here are old reviews of the Josie and the Pussycats movie AND soundtrack. I end the former meditating on the second chapter of late-1990s teen pop: "Too bad we'll have to wait another generation to see the film that registers the vagaries of teen pop's unbridled ambition." Eh, time moves fast enough under late late capitalism that we can speculate a mere 13 years later. I suppose no one film would encapsulate that next chapter so much as films in general, i.e., films as a more prestigious route beyond pop music - The Social Network, surely, or whatever TV show Billie Piper stars in now. Britney's still at it although she may be entering her fizzle years after the sleepiness of her last album (which might explain Britney Inventions, the remarkable tumblr of a former student of mine swooping in to provide the history-making and irony lacking in her star narrative). Christina's on TV, The Spice Girls are atomized, Carson Daly's safe on a morning show, The Backstreet Boys are collapsing history with the NKOTBSB album and tour (The Osmonds should open). And The Click Five...wait, who?

What's Ideological, Pussycat?
Josie and the Pussycats (Harry Elfont and Deobrah Kaplan, 2001)

Some readers found it perplexing, to be nice, that I included Josie & The Pussycats on my top ten list for 2001. I hemmed and hawed over whether I should justify my choice at length and decided finally, what the hell. Enjoy. Seriously.
At the Milwaukee word-of-mouth screening for Josie & The Pussycats, a local DJ announced that Carson Daly had a cameo in the film which elicited a wall of screams from the audience. Obviously this made the DJ jealous for he immediately sniffed “Carson Daly – anyone can do his job.” Dream on, buddy. Carson Daly’s job looks easy but if you pay attention to TRL, you notice a great deal of unease underneath that quintessentially average five o-clock shadow. As Rob Sheffield suggested in the pages of Rolling Stone last year, he’s absolutely petrified of teen pop and its screeching constituents. 
I read this fear as generational and it rises to the surface in the film with such force that the sugar high ad spots and soundtrack were utterly misleading. Josie & The Pussycats is a deeply cynical, deeply disturbing film from its very first scene when a boy band, with the market-suspicious name Du Jour, gets offed by their scheming record company and manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming). Writer/directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan chose the project as the latest in their line of Generation X resuscitations after The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas and A Very Brady Sequel. But from their pomo perspective, they fashioned a sour grapes cautionary tale for Generation Why Not. Election got there first but you can definitely witness a rift start to unfold in Josie & The Pussycats. 
Most of Elfont and Kaplan’s caveats reside in their naïve view of ideology. Wyatt casts aside Du Jour for Josie and her Pussycats because the boys begin to suspect their record company of evildoings. It turns out that indeed there’s a veritable ideological state apparatus in a piece of recording studio equipment which places subliminal consumer messages in pop songs. Music purchasers find themselves led zombie-like towards a wide variety of other products, all to the benefit of diabolical mogul Fiona (Parker Posey). The climactic Pussycats show, then, resembles a scene from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And Daly’s cameo is positively terrifying. The message – be cognizant of the way your zeitgeist is being marketed to you…or die.
Death by Carson Daly? A tad melodramatic perhaps. But if good ole fashioned Gen X skepticism eventually finds its most persuasive outlet in the copious product placements meant to anger up teen pop’s consumer-damaged bloodstream, the end of the film reveals the toll unbridled skepticism takes. It’s revealed that underneath Fiona and Wyatt’s slick urban professional veneer is a snaggletoothed lisp and albino hairdon’t respectively. The two fall in love and kiss, perfectly at ease with their alternative beauty, to which young, ambitious Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) says something along the lines of “how cute…in an ironic sort of way.” You know, as if irony were a bad thing. How Gen Why Not can you get? Fascinating. Too bad we'll have to wait another generation to see the film that registers the vagaries of teen pop’s unbridled ambition.

Josie and the Pussycats - Music from the Motion Picture (Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax, 2001)

Because it concentrates on one band/sound, apart from a brief visit towards the end by faux boy band Du Jour, Josie & The Pussycats is a refreshing respite from the soundtracks which double as necessarily inconsistent label samplers. The disturbing Gen X cynicism of the film here gets translated into a good half-hour of Mountain Dew-fueled power pop – less brawny than Tsar, nowhere near as complex and joyful as the amazing New Pornographers, catchier if less risk-taking than the last That Dog album, etc. Individual songs tend to get swept up in the total rush of the thing. But if, like me, you were humming the descending numerics of the first single, “3 Small Words,” on your way out of the theatre, you’ll purr along to every single one of these confectioneries. 

Of course, there’s a downside to such consistency. That speedy, syncopated six-string chug offers lots of Cheap Tricks but not enough treats. The sugar high production, courtesy of Babyface and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, just lets it rave over the songwriting so that the excited drum roll on “Shapeshifter” get subsumed in noise rather than building a bridge back to the chorus. But “Pretend To be Nice” is song enough to merit special mention for its slow chorus and lyrical detail nailing down a too-cool-for-you snob: “He falls asleep on the living room couch/With his sunglasses on and his tongue hanging out.” “Shapeshifter” sounds like it’s about the same guy but this time he’s ripping on Josie’s friend behind her back and it’s the one moment that reveals some heart (as opposed to Heart). In one sloppy, matter-of-fact line, “If you think that’s cool, whatever dude!” Josie manages to convey anger, care and disappointment that her friend might still for this poseur.

However gratifyingly streamlined this album sounds, though, there’s a messy, bizarre postmodern story behind it waiting to get out. The Josie & The Pussycats on the record are not The Josie & The Pussycats in the movie, fine. But who exactly they are remains a mystery at this time. Kay Hanley, of Letter to Cleo, is identified as the voice of Josie. But Bif Naked and Matthew Sweet appear courtesy of their labels and no one seems to know why. No press kit was released with the CD and even the album’s publicist at Epic expressed consternation (although she offered that it’s entirely possible Sweet played every instrument on the album).

And then check out the songwriting. On “Come On,” ten songwriters are credited including an ex-Go-Go, ex-members of Gigolo Aunts and The Three O’Clock, the two writer/directors of the film, Hanley, Schlesinger and Babyface. I’m dying to know how this happened not just because the song is absolutely nothing special lyrically or musically, something That Dog or Counting Crows (whose Anna Waronker and Adam Duritz dip their pens in other tunes here, incredibly) could’ve tossed off in an hour. Knowing how all this disparate talent came together (or didn’t) could only enhance the synthetic pleasure the songs already possess. Maybe Josie & The Pussycats will storm the Hot 100 and the story will be forced out. Yeah sure.