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SYFY WIRE Archie Comics

Does Anyone Remember the Archie Comics Origins of Josie and the Pussycats?

Josie in live action struck a totally different chord than its groovy 1960s comics inspiration.

By Benjamin Bullard

Josie and the Pussycats barely made back one-third of its reported budget when it released back in 2001, managing to rock loose only $14.8 million and change from moviegoers’ pockets at the global box office. 

Sure, it’s goofy, a little bit preposterous, and only slightly resembles its far-out 1960s-vintage Archie comics source material. But more than 20 years on from its release, the live-action comedy’s deceptively smart satire and prescient glimpse into a future (aka our present) — a future fueled by social signaling and media persuasion, all disguised behind endless layers of sticky pop sugar — well, it all has a funny way in hindsight of seeming way, way ahead of its time. 

Aside from longtime Archie fans, viewers who did catch Josie and the Pussycats in theaters could be excused for not knowing that the movie they were watching was bred from comic book DNA. Far more than the recent Riverdale or Josie's eponymous two-season TV ‘toon from the 1970s, the 2001 live-action movie felt like a world-wise product of its contemporary times. 

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How Josie and the Pussycats rocked to its own live-action beat

Thank the movie’s killer cast, at least in part, for Josie’s distinctively-drawn distance from the comics. In an inspired stroke of tapping the 2000s teenage zeitgeist, She’s All That star Rachel Leigh Cook led the trio as the Pussycats’ titular singer, flanked by Sharknado royalty Tara Reid as ditzy drummer Melody and Ahsoka’s Rosario Dawson as Valeria Brown, the outfit’s cool and together bassist.

Josie’s supporting cast, though, is what continues to sell most of the movie’s still-fresh comedic beats even today. Alan Cumming (who currently presides over the deliciously devious proceedings in Peacock’s The Traitors) snobs it up as a cynical record industry exec on the hunt in Riverdale for the next MTV-marketable girl group; while Parker Posey glams it up as Fiona, a punk-y Cruella de Vil type of music CEO who’s in cahoots with big business and mass media to manipulate kids’ trendy spending tastes. 

That manipulation, in fact, is where Josie and the Pussycats gets away with absolute satirical murder. After being swept up and turned into global pop sensations overnight, the girl group’s growing disillusionment over their way-too-sudden stardom provides the story platform for a wicked critique of how media wields commercial-grade power to influence just about every aspect of people’s lives. It’s wild to watch as literally dozens of big brand names sail past the screen, whether it’s the Evian logo that backdrops an aquarium’s whale tank or the Target icons that adorn the inside of the private jet that whisks yesterday’s flavor-of-the-week boy band, Du Jour (and how’s that for an on-the-nose band name?), straight to their pre-scripted doom. 

Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) sings and plays the guitar in Josie and the Pussycats (2001).

But staking out a unique spot for Josie’s millennial setting was more than just a matter of well-considered casting. Three years removed from writing and co-directing the well-received 1998 teen rom-com Can’t Hardly Wait, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont teamed up in the same roles once again for Josie and the Pussycats, and as the duo later shared with BuzzFeed News, they intentionally aimed for more than just a fun homage to Josie’s wayback 1960s origins. 

“We thought about what was going on with music at the time, what we wanted to say — TRL was at its height — and that kind of became, ‘What if all this was a conspiracy?’” explained Elfont of how Josie awakens to, and rebels against, all the movie’s corporate marionette games. 

“We were coming out of an era with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth, bands that really encouraged dissent and individuality,” added Kaplan. “It was like the music industry suddenly decided we need to course-correct and feed everybody what we want them to buy and promote corporate culture and not be like, ‘down with corporations.’ It was kind of a reaction to that. We saw it happening.”

Josie and eventually everyone else see it too — a realization that must have taken creative guts to portray onscreen in a studio film that Elfont and Kaplan essentially commandeered to poke fun at big entertainment’s carefully-engineered support structure. When Josie asks a record-scratching question about how she got famous so fast (“Does anyone else think it's strange all this happened in a week?”), it comes off like that moment in They Live when Roddy Piper puts on his magic glasses and immediately sees society’s skeleton for what it really is. 

All that might make Josie and the Pussycats sound like a super-serious affair, but you don’t even have to wait for the opening credits to realize that the comedy’s well-pitched blend of smarts, humor, and slightly risqué teenaged sweetness is anything but. There’s no sense in spoiling one of the movie’s best scenes, but be sure you’re seated and ready to watch right from the very beginning; it might be Du Jour’s darkest hour, but it makes for one hell of an explosive movie intro. 

Fun fact: This wasn’t the first time that the quartet of Du Jour actors who play each member of the NSYNC knockoff group in Josie’s opening scene had appeared together in the same film. All four (Donald Faison, Seth Green, Alex Martin, and Breckin Meyer) had previously teamed up with Elfont and Kaplan as part of Can’t Hardly Wait’s ensemble cast. 

Catch Josie and the Pussycats streaming on Peacock here.

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