Josie and the Pussycats is not a comedy, and it's possible the movie's not a work of fiction, despite its being "based on" Dan DeCarlo's 38-year-old Archie Publishing comic book. It's tempting to brand the film as documentary, this year's Scared Straight. There's very little that's funny about a movie that reveals, in horrific detail, what some of us have suspected for years: Record labels are inserting subliminal messages into the songs of pop acts (cf. Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and everyone else on those disposable Now That's What I Call Music! compilations your children are buying with their allowances), ordering teens to buybuybuy everything from soft drinks to tampons to chain-store coffee to dryer sheets to, no duh, CDs by other pop acts. Come on, didn't you ever wonder why pink is the new red, orange is the new pink, Gatorade is the new Snapple or Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon?
The entirety of the music business, from record labels to radio stations to MTV and VH1, is behind the scam; so is the government, which explains why no one's really too interested in shutting down Napster. When TRL host Carson Daly shows up as himself, swinging a baseball bat at the head of one of the Pussycats (played by his fiancée, Tara Reid, adding an extra veneer of creepiness), he confirms our suspicions by admitting he's "a key player in the conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America." Kids, we've been trying to tell you that for years. Finally, here's a film with brains and balls enough to get behind Behind the Music, which, as it turns out, is nothing more than a music-biz cover story hauled out whenever a label decides a band has lived beyond its expiration date or, worse yet, stumbled across the industry's plans for global consumer domination. Perhaps Kurt Cobain found out that music execs dismiss nonconformists as kids who "smell like teen spirit"; he just had to be gotten rid of.
The latest boy band, DuJour, suffers such a fate: One minute, they're crooning their latest single, "Backdoor Lover" ("I'm your backdoor lover, coming from behind with the lights down low"), to throngs of rabid, teary-eyed teenyboppers; the next, they're literally crashing to earth in their private plane, inside which someone vomited up a Target store. But theirs is no accident: Greasy label exec Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) sends them to their demise when they stumble across the secret messages imbedded in one of their remixed singles; they're too smart, and too stupid, for their own good. DuJour once stood for "friendship"; now, says one band member, it means "crash positions." Within 24 hours, the shelves are lined with a limited-edition commemorative boxed set: DuJour 2000-2001.
Josie and the Pussycats is but a fragile, almost nonexistent frame on which co-writers and co-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (responsible for Can't Hardly Wait, and perhaps this is their penance) can hang their cautionary tale (and sell some goods -- not a frame of film is bereft of product placement). Plotwise, there's little beyond the familiar story of young newcomers rising from obscurity to stardom, only to stumble and crash before inevitable retribution and redemption. This time around, it's three cutie-pies from Riverdale: the willful Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), the ditzy Melody (Reid) and the suspicious Val (Rosario Dawson). They're lifelong buddies who play the Riverdale Pin Palace, hoping one day to be discovered, signed and then dropped (maybe not the latter, but it is the life cycle of the average rock star). Wyatt is their savior: Without ever hearing the band, he signs them to the label (run by the singularly named Fiona, who resembles the skeleton of Parker Posey) and lands them on the cover of Rolling Stone -- and then gets them in the studio, where they knock out some chirpy alterna-rock that sounds like some strange amalgam of That Dog, Letters to Cleo, Fountains of Wayne, the Go-Go's and Babyface (maybe because that's who wrote and performed the songs).
Universal Pictures is taking a big risk with Josie: It's an anti-advertisement for itself, a subversive piece of work that tells its audience, "Hey, you're all stupid sheep for buying Josie and the Pussycat T-shirts, Josie and the Pussycat ears, Josie and the Pussycats Coke and all that other crap we're trying to sell you. Now, be freethinkers and buy our merchandise." Little wonder no one laughed at a recent screening, despite the plethora of little girls in Josie mini-tees and plaid schoolgirl skirts (oddly, it wasn't Naughty Dress-Up Day at the megaplex); some in the audience even walked out halfway through, as though being insulted for 95 minutes wasn't their idea of fun. Or maybe they just couldn't handle the truth.