CINEMATIC DYSTOPIA is a look at the most prescient, most thoughtful, and most sobering films about societies gone mad, brought to you by writer and humorist Dave Schilling. Every week, he’ll examine movies not about the end of the world, but the worlds that carry on after everything’s gone to shit. You know, like right now.
Do we dare allow ourselves the indulgence of traveling back in time to April of 2001? How decadent. It’s increasingly difficult to even picture the society that birthed pre-fab musical acts like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, O-Town, Dream, Britney Spears, Willa Ford, and various other creations of pop svengalis like Lou Pearlman. Some of those names, you remember. The others are smoldering in the dumpster from that meme. But for a brief moment, music being inauthentic was something worth being outraged about. Again, I say, how decadent.
The TRL-ification of pop culture was at the heart of Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s satirical adaptation of the comic book series JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. Elfont and Kaplan proved they had a nose for youth culture when they collaborated on the ensemble teen party film CAN’T HARDLY WAIT. The soundtrack for that film was jam-packed with songs that were considered “authentic,” or at least more so than the music JOSIE parodied. Blink-182, Busta Rhymes, and The Replacements (and Smash Mouth, but I think they were legally mandated to be on every movie soundtrack) made CAN’T HARDLY WAIT legitimately cool for a teenage audience, of which I was one. One very lonely boy.
That film turned Elfont and Kaplan into burgeoning auteurs of the moment because it so thoroughly captured the zeitgeist of a late 90s moment that was overstuffed with teen movies like SCREAM, AMERICAN PIE, and SHE’S ALL THAT. Youth culture was everywhere, and I’m sure that was terrifying for anyone past the age of 35. In a sense, the most apocalyptic, dystopian scenario is the most personal: your own death.
Before we were all consumed with non-stop dread, I had the mental bandwidth to ponder my own regularly scheduled demise every time I heard a Billie Eilish song or had to sort out the latest Twitter controversy over a YouTube star I’d never heard of. I can only imagine how scary it was for the human adults in the late 20th century who foolishly thought they had this whole “Western civilization” thing all figured out. Elfont and Kaplan appeared like they might have a direct line to the voracious consumers too young to rent a car, but old enough to buy movie tickets, Sprite, CDs, and acne medication. That made them invaluable to studios who wanted those dollars, but were terrified of trying to figure out how to get them honestly. That need to tap into the mind of youth is what made a grifter like Lou Pearlman, a devious mind who ran a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme, so appealing to the entertainment industry.
Elfont and Kaplan were no Lou Pearlman, but they could lay claim to plenty of youth cred. Before CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, their only film credit to that point was A VERY BRADY SEQUEL, itself the second installment of a series of postmodern deconstructions of moldy American monoculture. After CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, they wrote the sequel to THE FLINTSTONES. That’s a strong artistic and commercial pedigree if you want to bring Archie Comics characters to life for kids in 2001. The Archie universe of characters is fascinating, because they are such blatant products of illusory mid-century American contentment that even when we try to update them in any way, including The CW’s RIVERDALE series, the work can’t help but conjure up images of bland, white-bread prosperity and conformity. Perhaps that’s why Elfont and Kaplan were drawn to subverting those characters and making the JOSIE film a critique of pop idolatry and groupthink.
Instead of the retro, anachronistic approach that the BRADY BUNCH movies took, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS was about the here and now. Elfont and Kaplan’s movie ditched the mod 60s milieu of the comic book, but retained the Saturday morning cartoon’s shambling narrative structure in which lead singer Josie McCoy (Rachael Leigh Cook), drummer Melody Valentine (Tara Reid), and bassist Valerie Brown (Rosario Dawson) run afoul of a sinister mad scientist plot in between concert gigs.
As movies tend to do, though, the stakes are raised from the TV series. The mad scientist, MegaRecords CEO Fiona (a scenery-chewing Parker Posey), has her sights set on total world domination. Well, more accurately, she has already taken over the world. When JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS begins, humanity has been comfortably subjugated. MegaRecords attempts to assassinate a boy band called DuJour when the group realizes that their hit singles are all psy-ops and delivery systems for mind control, sanctioned by the United States government.
You see, this has been going on for years. Every single tragic pop star death or career flameout is because they learned the awful truth. VH-1’s docu-series BEHIND THE MUSIC was a means of distracting the public from the reality that their favorite artists were propaganda machines that outlived their usefulness to the state. All of this madness is info-dumped in one scene early in the movie, via a Parker Posey monologue inside a futuristic command center. It’s easily the funniest part of the movie and the most effective satire.
Josie and the Pussycats, an unknown band living in the fictional town of Riverdale, are picked by MegaRecords executive Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming, channeling SPICE WORLD-era Richard E. Grant) to be the new delivery system for their subliminal messages that encourage teenagers to mindlessly spend money on consumer products. Unbeknownst to our heroes, the Pussycats are made instant megastars because their song hypnotizes the entire world into liking them. MegaRecords’ endgame involves forcing the Pussycats to play a giant stadium show where they will broadcast a message to the entire world via wireless cat ear headphones.
The dystopian world of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is one that sounds scarier when you type it out like that than how it’s portrayed on film. The satire in this film is pretty gentle, since no one is really hurt by MegaRecords and the U.S. government infiltrating our brains. The film doesn’t explicitly condemn the proliferation of corporate imagery in popular culture, which would have been quite an ask for a major studio movie in booming, pre-9/11 America. Elfont and Kaplan wanted to make a big statement on early 21st-century capitalism, so they slapped a bunch of corporate logos all over their movie without charging for the ad space. Starbucks, Target, Ray-Ban, Tide, Krispy Kreme, Sega, and countless other symbols of American commerce are omnipresent in Riverdale, but also the entire rest of the country. It’s weird, but not sinister at all.
No one really suffers from the act of rampant consumption. I don’t think I see a single poor person in the entire movie, but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. JOSIE doesn’t say that the system of capitalism is a net negative for the world, but it does try to illuminate just how easy it is for the media apparatus of that system to create demand for just about anything. Carson Daly pops up in a brief cameo as a more homicidal version of himself who is a vital cog in the MegaRecords mind control scheme through his role as the host of MTV’s Total Request Live. Daly is the good sport who’s in on the jokes, laughing along with us at how crucial he was to the lives of American kids, which makes it less a critique than a bit of mild irony.
The layers of meta in this movie are voluminous, to the point where there’s even a fourth-wall breaker in the climax where Fiona and Wyatt (who have revealed their master plan was just to make Fiona more popular than she was when she was a sad teen with a lisp) decide to use movies to control humanity instead of music and a subliminal message flashes on the screen saying JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is the best movie ever. In a sense, JOSIE sets out to be both a universal theory of why the pop culture of 2001 sucks and a beneficiary of that culture. It’s such a jumble of ideas that it’s no wonder audiences rejected the movie when it came out. There isn’t so much a story here as a series of Warhol paintings set to music. It’s only now that whatever it’s all supposed to mean has found its willing audience. JOSIE is a proper, minted cult classic in the minds of many people who came of age in the 2000s thanks to just how weird it is.
There’s a vague sense of black comic whimsy in the more explicitly wacky moments, usually punctuated by Danny Elfman/Tim Burton pastiche music from composer John Frizzell. The music tells you how to feel about a movie that doesn’t really even know how to feel about itself. Josie, Melodie, and Valerie are all abstractions rather than characters with arcs. They want to be in a band and be friends forever. Besides that, they’re projections that exist only to manufacture the satire. One could make the argument that that is precisely the point. Josie and the Pussycats could have been literally anyone as long as Fiona used her brainwashing technology to make them popular. They’re empty vessels, though more virtuous than the other ones we’ve seen to that point.
The end of the movie shows us that Josie and the Pussycats’ music was legitimately good after all. The mind control machine is destroyed, which means they have to play the big show au natural, but the crowd loves it anyway. They’re real stars after all and didn’t let jealousy or fame affect their judgment. No one grapples with the fact that for decades, humanity has been manipulated into consumer insanity by a woman who just wanted to be universally loved. The physical machine might be broken, but the invisible one that keeps society in order still exists, since the Pussycats’ triumphant concert shows that pop music remains just as potent a tool for mass indoctrination.
JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS didn’t anticipate that TRL would get canceled, rock music and chaste teenybopper pop records would almost completely fall off the American cultural map, the internet would give every single person with a WiFi connection a voice, and Rachael Leigh Cook wasn’t going to be a huge movie star for the rest of her life. It also couldn’t anticipate that the 19 years after the film came out would make capitalism seem even more ominous than it does here. Elfont and Kaplan posit that everything’s gone wrong with society because the people in charge have low self-esteem.
It makes some sense. After all, why does someone become a bully if not because of some deep, hidden trauma? The urge to dominate comes partly through a need to feel powerful and superior because of a lack of positive reinforcement. Fiona’s dystopian dream is a collective nightmare in which we all think she’s pretty — the ego run rampant thanks to a system that values narcissism and money above all else. You could argue that what we’re talking about is the rationale behind all artistic endeavors. Devoting your life to creativity is an inherently self-absorbed pursuit, and I’m allowed to say that, because it’s what I’ve chosen, too. Add to that the poisoned chalice of megalomania that comes with global success, and you can see the negative side effects of wanting all that breathless collective adoration for your art. But Josie and her friends are too pure to be tempted, too fiercely individualistic and punk rock to participate in groupthink, otherwise they might have gone along with it.
Except, their triumphant moment is still the three of them on the stage, in front of thousands of people (and millions on TV and the internet) all cheering for them. That the love of the masses happens to be organic is the only reason it isn’t sinister. Can anything in mass media really be organic, though? Sure, American boy bands and girl groups are gone (but thriving in Korea), and YouTube and SoundCloud have democratized music to a certain extent, but how much has really changed since 2001? Despite what Cronenberg might have suggested, the machine is not the tool that subjugates us. The printing press, the radio, the motion picture, the television, the personal computer, the internet, and whatever other technology there is to feed young brains with images of things to covet are just satiating our inherent desire to fit in and to be controlled.
Marshall McLuhan says in The Gutenberg Galaxy, his book on the effects of mass communication and the printing press on human civilization, that “as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.” The most negative interpretation of this is that as humanity becomes more connected, more united through technology, that our cultures will drift toward 1984-style homogeneity and conformity. The culture will police itself. The machine goes invisible. To McLuhan, “Terror is the normal state of any oral society.”
Lou Pearlman died in prison, but his legacy of weaponizing adolescent obsession lives on. The internet is riddled with the scourge of stan culture, where celebrity worship is wielded like a sabre. People make jokes about how Taylor Swift sicced an army of borderline bot accounts on Donald Trump in the wake of his response to the George Floyd protests, but is that something to cheer considering Trump himself used blind social media devotion to put himself in the White House? In real life, there’s no mind control device that makes people do the bidding of famous people without question or critique. People submit themselves for service of their own free will, with no promise of reward for their efforts. By the end of this film, what did Josie and the Pussycats really accomplish besides making Big Brother go inside?
Every week, we’ll wrap this thing up with my version of online neighborhood rankings, but for the miserable cityscapes imagined in dystopian cinema. These rankings are out of 10, with one being a horrendous nightmare and 10 being STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
Riverdale in JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS
Walkability: 10 — If you walk around Riverdale, you might get discovered by an evil record executive who wants to make you a popular rock band.
Good for Families: 10 — There’s a Starbucks and a Gymboree on every block.
Arts and Culture: 1 — I mean, did you bother listening to that DuJour song?
Neighborly Spirit: 3 — Someone might cut you for concert tickets.
Best for: Mall punks, people with frosted tips in their hair.
Next Week: Perhaps the most American movie of our time, Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP remains such a powerful statement on the dehumanization of the country under a technocratic, outwardly benevolent, hyper-capitalist police state that one of its producers once called it “fascism for liberals.”