Crush-a-Thon: Josie and the Pussycats

JosieAndThePussycats5For our first guest post of the 2013 Crush-a-Thon we turn to Danny Reid. Danny went to journalism school, ended up becoming a history student, and works as a software engineer. He also spent many years working at a variety of mom and pop videostores, thus bestowing upon himself a truly eclectic experience in cinema. In his spare time he reviews the racy and weird films of the early 1930s at Pre-Code.Com, and sometimes writes for other sites before they realize it and get a chance to stop him.

His crush: Rachael Leigh Cook

I’ll start this by saying I apologize: there’s a lot of back story, side story, and ‘why in god’s name is he telling me this’ story in this one. I think it’s because if you weren’t a teenager at the turn of the century, these bits of film history have been quietly shoved under the rug. There’s also a massive government conspiracy to make people try and forget that See Spot Run grossed over $43 million dollars, but that’s also one of those conspiracies I’m totally okay with and wholly endorse.

But that brings me to that time a decade and a half ago which seems extraordinary. Have you ever seen She’s All That? Sure, we all have. Now how about Antitrust? The Big Empty? Tangled? Blow Dry? Texas Rangers? Get Carter? Blonde Ambition? The Big Empty? Stateside? Rotten Tomatoes 0%-er 29 Palms?

I have.

JosieAndThePussycats1It took me a while to develop cinematic crushes; I’d blame late-blooming puberty, but it owed a lot more to the fact that my hormones were so busy at high school during the day they were simply tuckered out when the TV screen flickered on in the evenings.

That changed when I got my first job at a mom and pop videostore at 16. In the hoary olden times of 1999, this mostly meant watching GoldenEye over and over again as well as trying to push The Thin Man on unsuspecting customers. And, if they were particularly up on the times, I’d suggest renting one of our then-newfangled DVDs which then consisted of Lethal Weapon 4, The Thomas Crown Affair, and several different Wrestlemanias.

Meanwhile, Miramax’s ascendency during the 90s is hard to overstate now, and using their influence and coffers at Disney, the Weinsteins attempted to dominate any motion picture genre that didn’t require a massive special effects budget. One of their acquisitions was She’s All That, a film that took Pretty in Pink and added in a bunch of hip lingo and then dumbed down the plot a few degrees just to play it safe.

The film grossed ten times its budget and made a stars of Freddie Prinze Jr., Matthew Lillard, and, yes, even Paul Walker. Less of the Brat Pack of a generation earlier, they were more of a Bland Pack: impossibly handsome guys with a self depreciating touch and big shiny smiles. They were eerily reminiscent of those horrible boy bands who were filling the airwaves like Backstreet Boys and N*Sync, who were just as often seen as blank pretty faces for the use of adorning backpacks and binders and not much else.

But the most important revelation of She’s All That was the temporary new ‘It’ girl of the cinema, Rachael Leigh Cook. Sly, funny, and a little cooky in that completely safe cooky way, she was sweeter than the Winona Ryders of yesteryear while still being sardonic and never too serious. She hurt, she joked, and she lusted.

Being an outsider nerd at school who was mostly concerned with playing my violin and arguing about the relative merits of the Nintendo 64, I was at one of those points where I ebbed away from popular culture. I liked finding weird indie stuff from decades earlier, nearly wearing out my store’s copy of Return of the Killer Tomatoes and Light Years.

Meanwhile, all of the girls at my school swooned over She’s All That— I mean, just look at Freddie Prinze Jr.’s cheekbones!– and by popular fashion all the men there loathed it. I fit in that latter group until I saw the damn picture, and was at once smitten. Not so much with her ‘After’ appearance in the film’s rote ugly duckling storyline, but her nerdy, artsy ‘Before’ picture had me completely hooked.

That minor infatuation was just that until 2001, my senior year of high school. Prior to this, one of my more cherished childhood memories involved sneaking downstairs as a kid and watching Cartoon Network at 4 AM when I couldn’t sleep, the slot invariably possessed by Hanna Barbera cartoons that no one at the network minded showing at 4 AM.

JosieAndThePussycats6Chief among these was Josie and the Pussycats, one of those cartoons deeply indebted to Scooby-Doo with an emphasis on pop songs. Three girls– lead singer Josie, bassist Valerie and the ditsy Melody– dress up in leotards, put on cat ears, and travel across the country singing in a band and solving mysteries.

Apparently someone else had been watching at the same time because Josie and the Pussycats suddenly became bound for the big screen. Taking aim at the entire music culture of the late 90s, Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan wrote and directed the film after having just come off of a big success with another high school comedy, Can’t Hardly Wait.

To star as the band, they picked out He Got Game‘s Rosario Dawson for Valerie, and American Pie star and soon-to-be train wreck Tara Reid to play the ditzy Melody to perfection. For the lead, they grabbed the still-hot Rachael Leigh Cook to dye her short hair red and give Josie McCoy a spin.

JosieAndThePussycats2The film version is postmodern and hip, ditching the mystery angle and going with an anti-corporate message beyond She’s All That‘s gentle poke at MTV reality shows. It instead becomes a pointed lob at teenage insipidness in general. That vaunted teenage rebellion that we all know and love is shown here to be brought on by a conspiracy between the government and music industry. What looks like rebellion is really conformity: before you can say, “Orange is the new purple” the entire teenage subculture can be realigned with new slang, new tastes, and, most importantly, new brand preferences.

The music industry still requires bands to play music over their subliminal cues, and that’s where Josie and her gang come in. They’re small town girls struggling to make ends meet who find their concerts often drowned out by bowlers at the local alley. When a music promoter take a shine to them, they’re whisked off to a world of instant fame and glamor, though they soon find that they’re becoming just grist for the mill as phony rewards and suspicious music charts show that their record label may not have their best interests at heart.

JosieAndThePussycats10Cook is given most of the beats in the film as she must deal with a small town crush that she has while also trying to unravel the global conspiracy to make teenagers idiots. Her childhood crush is Alan M., a guitar player of significantly less skill, both musically and socially. He doesn’t start picking up on her signal until he sees her dressed for a musical performance in a backless dress which she’d refashioned from something a little more hideous.

When I first saw this scene, I was floored. I hadn’t really understood that women could wear clothes that showed off their backs– where was the bra strap?! I was rather naive, and watching whoever the hell played Alan M. running his finger down Rachael Leigh Cook’s nothing less than immaculate spine, I was hooked.

The movie’s a fine lark, with a good heart: teaching teenagers that the media and government is happy to exploit them for fun and profit is a nice dose of cynicism for a movie aimed firmly at those most ignorant of it.

Critic’s weren’t that kind to Josie and the Pussycats though. Roger Ebert awarded it a half a star and beefed that the lead group were “as dumb as the Spice Girls”, which is one of those review lines that can be used to carbon date it in the future. The box office was even crueler, and the film barely made back a third of its budget.

I can attest for that. Just old enough to drive when the movie hit theaters, I rushed out of school on Friday to the closest theater in town. There, I was the only person in the theater for its premiere showing. Unfortunately, a film that took aim at youth culture while also being aimed at said culture simply collapsed in on itself.

JosieAndThePussycats8Cook went on to keep trying a mixture of independent films and low-budget wide releases, but she never regained any buzz after Josie unceremoniously flopped. Her projects ranged the solid Stateside and The Big Empty to the much more often indie misfire like the dreary Get Carter and pointless 29 Palms. Cook was fine in all of these, just cruising through the roles at worst. Her name gradually faded from marquees and soon she spent most of her time on television.

I knew I was old when I was watching Nancy Drew to kill a shift down at the videostore, and there was Rachael Leigh Cook once more. Not the star, not even the sister of the star, but she was playing a mother of one of the kids in the movie. She was no longer on the front box or the movie’s posters, but a character actress making her way through the world one bit at a time. A suitable metaphor of going from teenager to adult if anything.

But, man, those deep brown eyes she’s got. Rachael Leigh Cook may not be remembered for much nowadays, and probably even less down the line. But she’ll always be my first big cinematic crush, and I’ll never forget that.

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7 thoughts on “Crush-a-Thon: Josie and the Pussycats

  1. Pingback: Pre-Code Hollywood Movies on TCM in December 2013 | Pre-Code.Dom

  2. I really enjoyed this film and pre-purtified She’s All That Rachel Leigh Cook. It’s a lot of fun and very meta which I enjoyed even though I wasn’t that big a fan of the Josie cartoon. As a sidenote, I recently watched Vampire a few weeks ago which is a fairly recent movie featuring… Rachel Leigh Cook. Very artsy, kind of slow, but Cook is really funny in it.

  3. “She’s Josie” was actually a comic book that Dan DeCarlo started at Archie back in the 1963, based and named after his wife. I think later in the decade, when bands became ‘in’ with the Beatles, the Pussycats showed up. The cartoon came out in 1970 to cash in on the success of the Archie show and, of course, Scooby-Doo. I don’t know how your rules work, Bubba, but it’s a comic book property through and through.

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