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Josie and the Pussycats: Backdoor Lovin’ It

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“I studied the way they performed. The little gestures and facial expressions they do in those music videos, how they would rock out […] When you’re a kid, everything is aspirational, so you look at things and think about ways you learn from and mimic it.

– Mitski, on the film in 2017


The Josie and the Pussycats comics began as an act of love. Inspired by his wife Josie’s cat costume and bobbed haircut, artist Dan DeCarlo sketched a vision of a rock band in spotted catsuits in the late 1950s – an act of pure creation between artist and muse. He affectionately named them Josie and the Pussycats, spoofing his wife’s accomplished violin skills into a beatnik rock ‘n’ roll trio.

Through Archie Comics publishing, Josie and the Pussycats finally hit store shelves in December 1962, unintentionally starting a countdown to the end of DeCarlo’s professional career.

Despite his iconic pop-art style that defined the look of Archie Comics over the ensuing decades, in 2000, DeCarlo learned that Archie Comics was releasing a live-action adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats through Universal and MGM without his permission. When DeCarlo asked to be paid fairly and credited as the sole creator of Josie, he was promptly terminated by Archie Comics, ending a more than 40-year partnership. By the time the film finally hit theaters the following spring, DeCarlo was pleading for ownership of his life’s work in federal court.

Archie Comics alleged to have commissioned DeCarlo to create “a female version of Archie” in 1961. DeCarlo claims his sketches of Josie and the Pussycats, directly inspired by his wife, predate that by more than a few years. In a regressive precedent, a superior court denied DeCarlo’s appeal on the grounds that he waited too long to claim credit, affirming Archie Comics’ ownership of the “Josie and The Pussycats” copyright.

A week after this verdict, DeCarlo passed away at the age of 82, leaving behind his wife Josie and no children.

Out of conviction for his case, DeCarlo never saw Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s staggering film version of Josie, though it’s easy to imagine him hating it out of hand. (He also was reportedly not a fan of the cartoon from 1970 either.) But one wonders what he would have made of the film’s valorization of one Artist in the face of a highly organized corporate machine. Would the film’s affirmations of artists’ rights have resonated? 

Despite its many (many) tangents from the source material, the film is still incredibly persuasive as a guerilla-art object, working two-fold to render its comic-book premise while also commenting on the conditions of its creation as well. A Y2K satire made in the language of adaptations and franchise films. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Charlie’s Angels (2000); Spice World (1997) and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000) – the latter of which Elfont and Kaplan also worked on. Drawing on their youth during the Grunge Boom of the early ’90s, when bands were constantly plucked out of obscurity to become overnight sensations, Elfont and Kaplan envision Josie and The Pussycats as a world where the conscription of artist into pop cultural machine is a violent and disruptive affair. Not as explicitly Faustian as, say, Vox Lux (2018), the film is still attentive to the sacrifice of stardom. The further one ascends on a career path, the further ensconced they become in a cycle of contractual bartering rather than creative expression. This is the end result for art in a pre-9/11 America.

What Elfont and Kaplan keep the same from DeCarlo’s comic are The Pussycats: Josie, Melody, and Valerie. Living in figurative and literal harmony in Riverdale, the trio scrape by playing gigs where they can, not quite chasing stardom, but, at least, an audience, maybe? Learning to play their instruments for the roles, Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson are elegantly cast, buzzing with the chemistry of a band that’s been through everything. The three women seemingly only have each other in the film, making their shared bond of music an act of communal expression rather than an individual one. The Pussycats would play music even if they weren’t getting paid (and they definitely aren’t). The Pussycats create out of love.

Added to the ensemble is none other than the Queen of cult herself: Parker Posey, at the height of her power. As the CEO of MegaRecords, Fiona (Posey) is another deviation from the original comics that is no less crucial to the film’s interpretation of the “Josie” story – a response to the cozy triumvirate of sisterhood represented by the Pussycats. Parker’s effortless cool in the role balances the film’s heightened tone as it wades further and further into gleeful absurdity, blending songs about “backdoor” sex with doppelganger hitmen and brainwashing pay-per-view.

In its own subliminal design, the film famously plasters nearly every square inch of its frame with garish company logos and branding used without permission. Though they could have accepted additional funding for such generous product placement, the filmmakers instead subvert their depictions, from ad to screed. The cross-section of corporate networks that emerges becomes a punchline (some of these things don’t exist anymore!) and an indictment of conspiracy (do you think the government is colluding with AOL to control the public?).

This tension between art and commerce is played largely for laughs in Elfont and Kaplan’s bald-faced satire, but it’s also part of what’s still so resonant about the film. The music industry did not “improve” in the twenty years since its release: the price of concert tickets has skyrocketed. Streaming platforms, while nice in the abstract, come at the cost to working artists who are denied royalties on hit tracks. Social media brand culture has further affirmed trends based on corporate directives rather than actual cultural novelty. The age of manufactured virality. In many ways, we are living the satire that the film depicts, collaborations with the US military and all. The bubblegum has popped.

What the entertainment machine has always misunderstood, however, is that during times of tragedy or spontaneous emotional overflow we do not turn to “content.” We do not and cannot untangle life’s mysteries with “content” – we do so with art. A duet with the void. It’s what gives life such lyrical ecstasy. Even a doodle is a harmonic act of vitality. Proof of life. Art, music in particular, has existed for centuries without corporations, and, in the age of the internet, will likely continue to do so as individuals find their audience online.

If Josie and The Pussycats is emblematic of anything, it’s this emphasis on decoupling business from the arts. Love, not lucre, as muse. A man draws a cartoon to impress the woman he likes; someone writes a song because they are in love. Anything else is just marketing.

Josie and the Pussycats screens starting Friday, January 6th.
Friday, Jan 6 – 10pm
Saturday, Jan 7 – 10pm
Tickets

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