Archie Comics, the third of the Big Three American comic book publishers, has survived since 1939 on the slice of life, laugh a panel stories of its characters. Sure, the company has dipped into other genres, like superheroes, but the company’s bread and butter has been the lives of teenagers in Riverdale, a town caught in a perpetual now that has incrementally changed over the years. Among the cast of characters are Josie and the Pussycats, an all-girl band from the neighbouring town of Midvale.
Josie didn’t start as the lead singer of her own band. Creator Dan DeCarlo was inspired to create the character after seeing his wife, who he named Josie after, in a cat costume on a cruise. After shopping the character and her strip around, DeCarlo sold the idea to Archie Comics. Josie debuted in Archie’s Pals & Gals #23, in 1963, followed by her own title, initially called She’s Josie. The title became Josie with issue 17.
The initial cast of characters included redhead Josie, who was essentially a gender-flipped Archie Andrews, her friends Melody, a blonde ditz, and Pepper, a dark-haired cynic. In the supporting cast, Josie had her beatnik boyfriend Albert, Pepper’s brawny boyfriend Sock, Alexander Cabot III who vied for Josie’s affection, and Alexandra Cabot, Alex’s skunk-haired twin sister. Josie would also appear in Archie titles, and the regular Archie cast would make cameos in hers.
The comic changed its title again in 1969, becoming Josie and the Pussycats. Josie started a band, becoming the lead singer and lead guitarist with Melody joining as the drummer. The Pussycats recruited Valerie as both bassist and songwriter. Alex became the band’s manager. Alexandra discovers that her cat, Sebastien, is a reincarnation of an ancestor who was executed for witchcraft, giving her some limited magical abilities. With the comic’s new direction, Pepper, Albert, and Sock disappeared. Alan M. stepped in to fill the role of Josie’s boyfriend, with Alexandra becoming a rival for his affections, and becoming a rival for Alex for Josie’s. The comic featured stories of the band on tour as well as day-to-day life as teenagers.
Archie had some success with a Filmation cartoon adaptation and a Billboard #1 hit, “Sugar Sugar“. Hoping to duplicate the success, Hanna-Barbera reached out to Archie Comics to adapt another title, getting Josie and the Pussycats. The first season of the cartoon saw the band on the road, getting involved in Scooby-Doo-like mysteries, with several characters taking on Scooby roles. In particular, Alan M. filled in for Fred and Alex, voiced by Casey Kasem, in Kasem’s Scooby role, Shaggy. The second and final season of the cartoon, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space sent the band on tour in space.
The comic ended publication in 1982, though the characters continued to appear in other Archie titles and in various Archie digests, including Pals & Gals. In 2001, Universal released a live action movie adaptation of the comic and characters, with Rachel Leigh Cook as Josie, Rosario Dawson as Valerie, and Tara Reid as Melody. The film updates the Pussycats to what was current in 2001, giving the band a new sound without losing the core that people would remember from the cartoon.
The movie begins as the boy band, Dujour (Donald Faison, Alexander Martin, Breckin Meyer, and Seth Green), arrives at the airport to perform their latest hit to a screaming mob before getting on their jet to go to Riverdale. In the air, though, all is not smooth with Dujour as little annoyances have built up. Their manager and promoter, Wyatt (Alan Cumming), is more their babysitter. He smooths the rifts over, but the band brings up a concern on the latest remix. Wyatt’s denial could only fool the very gullible, so Dujour is placated. However, Wyatt heads to the cockpit to tell the pilot, “take the Chevy to the levee“, and they both bail out. The plane goes down near Riverdale.
In Riverdale, Josie, Valerie, and Melody are working hard to break into the music industry, working odd jobs so that they can perform anywhere that will let them, including a bowling alley. The Pussycats want to be rock stars with their own style. During the down time, Josie hangs around with Alan M. (Gabriel Mann), where both are having a problem getting out how they feel about each other to each other. Josie and the other Pussycats also try to find out where their manager, Alexander Cabot III, was during their bowling alley gig. Alex’s twin sister, Alexandra (Missi Pyle), reveals that he was in line for Dujour tickets. When the news breaks about Dujour’s disappearance, Josie decides that the band has to work harder to gain a following, something that can’t be done by sitting on a couch. The Pussycats go out to busk in downtown Riverdale, but a confrontation with a store owner forces them to flee.
Wyatt has been busy. He’s managed to get news of Dujour’s disappearance out, their last hit song out for listeners, and has been given new orders by the owner of Megarecords, Fiona (Parker Posey), to find a new band. Downtown Riverdale isn’t exactly bursting open with random bands just crossing his path. Except, he has to hit the brakes to avoid hitting the Pussycats. He offers the girls a contract and flies them out to New York. The roses have a few thorns. Wyatt renames the band to Josie and the Pussycats. But the thorns are ignorable as the band begins to chart.
Fiona has what she needs, the new band to replace Dujour. She takes a group of foreign investors on a tour of her underground facilities. Megarecords, in conjuction with the American government through Agent Kelly, is working on a massivie subliminal message project. Hit bands under the Megarecords label have had extra tracks laid under the music with suggestions narrated by Russ Leatherman, Mr. Moviefone himself. Said suggestions include fashion trends, what slang is hot, what colours are in, and what to buy. Dujour had made this same discovery and were silenced. But now, Megarecords has Josie and the Pussycats, who are the number one band in America.
Valerie, though, still sees the thorns. She sees the media focused on just Josie. She sees how she and Melody are being shifted away. Most movies in this genre – band climbing to fame – sees the lead singer arguing with her bandmates and letting her ego get away from her. The live action Jem and the Holograms is a good example of this plot. However, Josie cares too much about Valerie and Melody to just toss them aside; they’ve worked too hard together to get where they are. Nothing will get in between them.
Wyatt and Fiona realize how close the Pussycats are, so arrange to turn Josie into a solo act. First, Valerie and Melody are lured to a fake taping of Total Request Live where the real Carson Daly and a fake Carson Daly (Aries Spears) try to murder them. With Josie alone, Wyatt passes along a new remix of a new song to Josie to listen to, one with subliminal messaging telling her that she’s far better than Melody and Valerie. Valerie and Melody manage to escape both Carson Dalys and return, only to be driven away by Josie.
Alone, Josie storms off, still listening to the remix with the subliminal messaging. She winds up skipping Alan M.’s gig as a solo guitarist, leaving him to the tender mercies of Alexandra. Josie does break through the brainwashing, though, and realizes what happened. With help from Alexander and Alexandra, Josie gets the proof she needs that Megarecords, Wyatt, and Fiona are up to no good. Fiona catches her in the act, though, and forces her to go to the Sega Megarena to perform.
Melody and Valerie catch up at the Megarena. Josie tries to make up for her bad behavior to them, but the bridges are too badly burnt. Fiona threatens to kill Valerie and Melody to force Josie to go on stage, to the point of having an MTV news bulletin already created reporting the deaths of the bandmates in a firey explosion. Josie acquiesces, but still tries one more time to make up with her friends. All looks lost, until the deus ex puer cohortem arrives, in the form of Dujour. They had managed to land their private jet. Unfortunately, they set down outside a Metallica concert and only escaped the fans because of one of Dujour knew “Enter the Sandman“. Dujour isn’t up for a fight, but they are the distraction Josie needs to try to free her friends. Too bad the car Valerie and Melody are in are on a turntable, letting Fiona catch Josie in the act.
Josie, though, has had enough and launches herself at Fiona. With chaos breaking out, Valerie and Melody break free and help out. Valerie takes on Wyatt leaving Melody to deal with Fiona’s bodyguards. The latter fight isn’t fair; Melody knows kung fu. Valerie manages to clothesline Wyatt. Josie goads Fiona into swinging a guitar at her; the miss destroys the machine controlling the subliminal messages. Agent Kelly arrives with several other G-Men. Josie reveals the plot to them, telling them that Fiona and Wyatt were brainwashing teenagers. Kelly has little choice but to throw Fiona under the bus and takes her away.
The Megarena is still filled with an audience who wants to see Josie and the Pussycats play. The Pussycats are blown away by the size of the crowd, but still go on with the show, even without the subliminal messages, giving the audience a chance to make its own decision on whether to like the band. The Pussycats bring down the house.
The movie is a satire of the music industry and consumerism. Dujour is the boy band of the day. Product placement is everywhere, obvious and obnoxious, none of it paid placement. There’s even an Evian ad in a whale tank. The Pussycats get co-opted to sell everything, even themselves. There are times when the movie is cynical about the music industry. At the same time, the movie understands its target audience. Teenagers are media savvy and know when they’re being pandered to, with some extras for fans of the cartoon. Fiona’s plot is comically over the top to satisfy a very human need, the need to be accepted. All from Archie Comics’ film studio, Riverdale Productions. Josie and the Pussycats isn’t what is expected from the company*.
The characters from the comic are critical to making the movie about the Pussycats instead of any other all-girl band. Josie is the ambitious one, wanting to become a rock star, the one pushing her bandmates. Valerie is the rock, the one still anchored to reality that her friends can count on. Melody is still the ditz, not quite all there and capable of completely missing the obvious. Josie and Alan M. are trying to be a couple, with Alexandra trying to insert herself into Alan M.’s life. Alexandra remains true to her comic book incarnation, unpleasant but willing to let herself be dragged along when the going gets tough. She even keeps her skunk stripe. The effort is there to keep the characters true to the original. Again, it helps that the owners of the property are involved; that’s one less separation between the original work and the adaptation.
The movie has had an effect on the characters in the comics. The names given in the film – Josie McCoy, Melody Valentine – have been accepted as canonical. Valerie‘s last name was Smith in the comics, though it changes to Brown when Pepper Smith returns. With the New Riverdale line of comics, with new but still familiar designs for all of the Archie characters, the Pussycats get a look that fits in with the movie, though Melody is less a ditz and more living in her own comic book that just crosses over with Josie and the Pussycats.
The live action Josie and the Pussycats is an evolution for the characters. They were brought up to date, given a new sound that resonated with the era, and yet remained true to their comic book forms. While the movie didn’t do well in theatres, it provided satire of an industry while delivering a comic book-style plot that would fit in with the animated adaptation of 1970.
* Then again, the publisher has released such titles as Archie Meets Kiss, Archie Meets the Punisher, and Archie vs Sharknado, so maybe the movie isn’t all that unexpected.