When Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan's Josie and the Pussycats was released 20 years ago this week, the reaction was mixed. Some people saw it for what it was, a music-industry satire subtly — brilliantly — lampooning the era when MTV and Carson Daly reigned supreme. And others, well, I think they misunderstood its genius.
It was a female-led, pop-music driven, fashion-forward film starring teen-movie queens Tara Reid, Rosario Dawson, and Rachael Leigh Cook. It wasn't exactly the kind of thing 2000s media was friendly toward. As Reid put it in a phone call with InStyle, at that time "no one got the movie."
Though they were still in their very early 20s, for all three actresses, the film came after their big breaks. Reid had starred in the first two American Pie movies in 1999 and 2001 as Vicky. Cook was the lovable lead in 1999's She's All That, and Dawson had made a name for herself in the 1995 cult classic Kids six years before. They were all very different actresses, but together, they made something that would become a beloved classic for a particular group of young people at the time.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, I'll do my best to break it down. The characters are based on the Archie Comics franchise by Dan DeCarlo. In the movie version, "The Pussycats" are a garage band that has never even recorded a song. They are randomly discovered by evil talent agent Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) in the middle of the street one night after a bowling alley gig. Frame's goal is to have the group unknowingly make music with subliminal messaging, advertising brands like Pepsi and McDonald's, a sinister scheme created by label owner Fiona (Parker Posey). The movie was made in — and takes aim at — the heyday for overt product placement and advertising in media. Not a scene goes by without an ad. A Starbucks logo is taped to the wall behind the girls when they walk into a bathroom, and a McDonald's logo is the main feature in a city skyline, just to name a few.
The newly renamed Josie and the Pussycats become famous overnight — because of the messaging used in their songs. After the drummer, Melody (Reid), and guitarist, Valerie (Dawson), start to catch on that something is up, they are cut out of the band and Josie (Cook) is the only one left. Eventually, though, they all come back together for the final scene to take down Frame and Fiona and play a show for a sold-out arena that the audience was brainwashed into attending.
The movie is as chaotic as it sounds but so much more than that. For someone like me, who was 11 when it was released, that final scene was the opposite of what girls were being fed from every direction at the time. It told us it was okay to be powerful and sexy and fashionable and kind of ridiculous all at the same time. And, yes, I still know every single word to the songs.
Ahead, I spoke with Reid, Dawson and Cook, as well as the film's directors Deborah Kaplan and Henry Elfont, about that huge final scene to find out if the movie meant the same thing to them as it did to me. Spoiler alert: it did.
The casting was unconventional.
Tara Reid: I had a three-picture deal with Universal so my first movies were with them. The first two that they gave me were American Pie 1 and 2. The third one was Josie and the Pussycats. So, it worked out pretty good for me. Back in the day, they used to give you three-picture deals. The studios would take care of you.
Rachael Leigh Cook: For some reason, I was not asked to audition. I hope you can't tell that by the movie itself. I had met Deb and Harry on their previous film Can't Hardly Wait, which I auditioned for but wasn't cast in. I'm really glad that [they remembered me] when they were going to make Josie and the Pussycats. I met with them and I read their incredible take of the script, and just was really impressed … especially tackling the Riverdale franchise. And to this day, I'm amazed that they cast me in that role. I feel really blessed.
Tara Reid: I didn't even see the script when I was cast. They're like, 'We want you to play Melody.' I'm like, who is Melody? I had no idea. They told me I get to play music and I'm like, 'I get to play a drummer? I don't know how to play the drums.' And I'm like, 'I fall anytime you see me, I'm very clumsy and I'm going to play the drums?' But Melody and me kind of worked together in the end. It was an incredible part that I was so lucky to play.
Harry Elfont: Tara had just been in American Pie, and the studio was very excited about having her in the movie. Other people read for Josie though. Zooey Deschanel came in and sang, she brought a microphone from like a tape recorder, this plastic microphone with just a cord dangling, and she sang for us.
Deborah Kaplan: I think there was interest in Rachael from Universal. It was like, 'well, we might not get her,' so there was a nice list of girls who read for Josie as well.
Rosario Dawson: I personally loved Josie and the Pussycats so much because of the comics and the tongue-in-cheek [lines] so I just went in and lead with that. They [Deb and Harry] are both so funny and so brilliant. Everyone involved was great in this project and I'm so stoked to be a part of it! I'm blown away when I hear about some of the actors who auditioned for the Valerie role.
Deborah Kaplan: We read a lot of people before we got to Rosario. That was a tougher role to cast. That was the one that everyone was like, we read Aaliyah, we read Left Eye, we read Beyoncé, like crazy when you look back at the casting stuff, it's an embarrassment of riches who came in.
Harry Elfont: If we'd cast Left Eye, then we could have a rap break in the middle of one of the songs. We could really kind of steer it towards her musical ability, but [Left Eye] kind of brought that intensity. She didn't have that comedic touch that we really wanted to find. That's when we met with Rosario in a hotel room in New York and immediately we just kind of looked at each other like, 'oh my god this is the woman.'
But it was love at first sight.
Tara Reid: Everyone was talking about American Pie and other movies I did at the time. I did so many cultish movies that went on and on and on. But this is the first movie that I did that was just girls. It was just us three, living in Canada, having the time of our life, no boys, just girls. We all became like sisters. We did everything together. I loved that, and they were so good at their characters. I mean, Rachael is Josie at the end of the day. She's the kindest person I've ever met to this day in my life. She's beautiful.
Rachael Leigh Cook: We got along tremendously, as I'm sure Tara already regaled you with our tales of staying up too late and enjoying our offset time as well as our onset time, and becoming fast friends. It was an incredible experience. I had made a movie prior with a big group of girls. It was a wonderful bonding experience, but it wasn't as fast or intense and fun as the bond that Tara, Rosario, and I made in that movie.
Rosario Dawson: Working with Tara and Rachael was truly incredible. They are sisters and I love them. Both were so welcoming and were such ginormous stars when I came on board — it was insane how that was my first introduction to paparazzi culture. I am so glad it happened in a time before social media because we really just got to enjoy being together on set and became close. It's tough to form that kind of bond these days since everyone disappears into their phones. It was so powerful and beautiful that we were playing best friends and actually became that while we were filming.
Deborah Kaplan: It was like having a house full of teenagers, they really got on like gangbusters and were hanging out after work and before work. It was just to corral all that energy and still let them have fun.
Harry Elfont: There's no guarantee that you have three actresses working together that they're all just going to get along, but they really did. They became this really tight knit group, it felt like a very sisterly bond. And that part was fun, yeah. But occasionally we would have to tell them to stop laughing and get to the actual business of making the movie.
Rachael Leigh Cook: It wasn't a bond destined to continue on a day-to-day basis, that flame burned very bright. We all went back to living our lives that look very different. But I will always have a very available space in my heart for them forever.
Working with Parker Posey and Alan Cumming was magic.
Rachael Leigh Cook: I remember that Parker seemed a little bit unsure about how broad the scenes were but I think it worked beautifully and that's a credit to her and to our directors. I remember her and Alan just always cracking each other up and having the best time and encouraging each other to go further and further.
Tara Reid: We're cracking up watching Alan and we couldn't handle it. They're so funny. They're so good. Especially Parker. She was out of control.
Harry Elfont: The only thing I remember about shooting that final scene was that Alan Cumming — who is such a love and the nicest, most easy-going person to work with — was a little uncomfortable because he had to be in a bald cap and then have a wig on top of it. We were in this hot location and poor Alan was just trying to endure, just sweating and being super uncomfortable.
They really learned to play and that final concert was real.
Tara Reid: I always say every actor wants to be a rock star, every rock star wants to be an actor. We actually learned these instruments. We learned these songs. We sang all of them. We did everything, all three of us. They brought in about maybe a thousand extras and we had this huge stadium packed. Then, my character rises up onto the stage. I took my sticks and banged them together like 'one, two, one, two, three, four.' I swear, we all looked at each other and couldn't believe it. Rosario would come up and smile at me. I'd smile at Rachael. We were playing. We really thought we were rock stars. We really were Josie and The Pussycats in that moment.
Rosario Dawson: The concert scene was so wild because we learned to play our instruments and were doing all the rockstar stuff like performing and jamming out. The music and project was just so great that it felt like this really big concert that everyone enjoyed being at. I wonder when we'll be able to get back to shooting big scenes like that with hundreds of extras, but it was magical and profound. It was a big day! I wish I would have been able to crowd surf.
Deborah Kaplan: We gave away a free concert from a very popular boy band up in Canada. So people showed up to see them. The band was called b4-4.
Rachael Leigh Cook: We completely felt like we were just awesome. And then I remember after about four hours, the extras started leaving because they were there of their own free will and not getting paid. So they started shooting T-shirts out of T-shirt cannons. And by about eight hours in, they were giving away a car. Apparently it was not a good enough car because most people wanted to leave anyway. And we really did not feel as awesome by the very end, but we definitely got a taste of what that must be like. And it was pretty incredible.
Harry Elfont: People did leave because we got very caught up in the Pussycats performing and they were just getting such a rush from performing in front of this actual audience of thousands of people we went a little too long, shooting them. So by the time we then turned around to shoot the crowd, some of them had already started leaving. So even the shots in the movie don't even show the full, full crowd, because we did start to lose people by the time we shot those angles.
The initial reception was complicated.
Rachael Leigh Cook: I didn't have a really wide social circle at that time, which is also probably why I clung to Tara and Rosario so much when we were making that movie. I was someone who started working really young. I was on my own a lot. And so I didn't have a friend group to sort of tell me, 'Hey, I love your movie.' My sample size reactions were my immediate family and maybe my agency and management. And they truly looped me in on the business side of reactions to the movie, but I just sort of thought that I liked it. I knew that we got a lot of press out of it. I came to understand that it didn't make a lot of money, but it wouldn't be until many, many years later that the ramifications of the box office "disappointment" would have any effect on me.
Tara Reid: I just so appreciate that people now see it. Back then, they didn't see that. No one got the movie. But now 20 years later, and now we've got a cult following. So this shows you that we were ahead of the times, but people now see it. They're seeing the beauty of what this movie really was. And it was about art and love and family and friends, that's everything.
Deborah Kaplan: Obviously that opening weekend was a bit of a soul crusher. To show up to a theater literally see seven people coming out. Wow, this was an epic fail. But when Harry had joined Twitter he started saying, "There are people on Twitter who really liked the movie." Right around that time, we had also seen this band called Charlie Bliss had dressed up as Josie and the Pussycats and played a Halloween concert at Shea Stadium and played some songs from the soundtrack. We started to realize there was a whole group of musicians, particularly young women who saw the movie, that got really inspired by it. It's a movie that's not — they're not all talking about boys that they like, they're very invested in their success as musicians and the success of their friendship, and it really hit home with a lot of people.
Harry Elfont: We have done more interviews and we've had more requests for interviews in the past week than we ever did when the movie came out. It's crazy how it has grown in people's interest and the movie has grown over the years as opposed to a movie that made a lot of noise when it came out and then nobody really talked about it anymore. This is kind of a unique and fun experience to go through, to have people still want to ask us about this movie 20 years later.