Editorâ€™s note: What follows is no less than the third column that Popdose writer Jon Cummings has attempted to wring out of a single interview last fall with former Letters to Cleo vocalist Kay Hanley. The first one, a Popdose Interview, was quite nice, really; the second, however â€“ a treatise on the bandâ€™s participation in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You â€“ began to betray diminishing returns. (The SOB even snuck a backhanded reference to Hanley into a column about Miley Cyrus a couple weeks back.) And now comes this essay, about which the less said in advance the better. Please rest assured, gentle readers, that Mr. Cummings has been put on notice â€“ and that if the words â€œKayâ€ and â€œHanleyâ€ appear in succession in one more of his columns during this calendar year, his status will be downgraded to something no more elevated than, say, â€œCardinal Mahoney of Cool.â€ Without further ado:
Usually a film soundtrack becomes a big seller for one of two reasons: because the disc features music that played an indelible role in a hit movie, or because it includes one or more hit singles. But then thereâ€™s the curious case of Josie and the Pussycats, a 2001 film whose box office totaled just $14 million and which featured no charting songs, yet whose soundtrack reached Number 16 on the Billboard album chart and sold well over half a million copies.
So, what could possibly explain this anomaly, this rupture in the cinema-soundtrack continuum? Was it baby-boomer nostalgia at the prospect of hearing once more the theme from the animated Josie series of the early 1970s? Doubt it. Did the filmâ€™s trailer for some reason send viewers running for the record store rather than the movie theater? Probably not, but decide for yourself:
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Perhaps untold thousands of record buyers discovered it the same way I did â€“ on a listening post at a Virgin Megastore â€“ and wound up making an impulse purchase of an album whose accompanying film they had no intention of seeing. Whatever else may have been going on, it certainly didnâ€™t hurt that the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack rocks. It features 11 girl-power-pop classics, leavened with a couple of nifty parodies of the boy-band dreck that dominated the Hot 100 at the time of the filmâ€™s release. It was pulled together by executive-producer Kenneth â€œBabyfaceâ€ Edmonds, with songwriting contributions from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, the Gigolo Auntsâ€™ Dave Gibbs and Steve Hurley, once-and-future-Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, and Fountains of Wayne/â€œThat Thing You Do!â€ tunesmith Adam Schlesinger.
But the key to Josieâ€™s success was Josie herself. Kay Hanley brought to the fictional bandâ€™s lead vocals the same balls-out propulsiveness that she gave Letters to Cleoâ€™s hits during the 1990s, and her fiery delivery of such terrific tunes as â€œ3 Small Wordsâ€ and Duritzâ€™s â€œSpin Aroundâ€ lend them a credibility that the film itself sorely lacks. Hanley also provided on-set guidance to the filmâ€™s Pussycats, Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid, leading a â€œband campâ€ with the actresses and working with Cook in front of a mirror to help her figure out how to lip-sync and mime playing a guitar.
Ironically, Hanley was brought onto the project to sing not as Josie, but as the Pussycats. â€œThey already had a Josie when I signed on,â€ she says, â€œbut by the time I got to L.A. they had let the original Josie go â€“ not because she sucked, but because she was too good. Kenny had chosen somebody from his world, and it was like a womanâ€™s voice coming out of Rachael Leigh Cookâ€™s mouth. It just didnâ€™t work.
â€œThat left me in a position to swoop in and get the gig, but it didnâ€™t happen immediately. They kept me hanging around for awhile, and to make a long, protracted story short, I eventually heard they were flying in Tracy Bonham (â€œMother, Motherâ€) to sing Josie’s part. So I quit! But Kenny brought me back, and it wound up being a very good thing that he did.â€
Hanleyâ€™s husband, former Cleo guitarist Michael Eisenstein, wound up playing guitars and bass on the soundtrackâ€™s songs. Meanwhile, Edmonds was helping Hanley overcome her insecurities. â€œThis was my first gun-for-hire gig,â€ she says, â€œand there was a lot of trepidation going in. I had never considered myself much of a singer â€“ I saw myself as a one-trick pony, and not a very good one at that. So to be asked to work on a project like this, specifically because of my qualities as a singer, was definitely weird for me.
â€œThe songs had been written already [though Hanley and Eisenstein contributed the track â€œShapeshifterâ€], and fortunately most of them were in a style I was at least vaguely comfortable with. But when they played me the demo for [the ballad] â€˜You Donâ€™t See Me,â€™ I said, â€˜I canâ€™t sing that!â€™ Kenny said, â€˜Yes, you can,â€™ and he worked really patiently to boost my confidence. To this day, I canâ€™t listen to that track without thinking, Wow, I canâ€™t believe I did that.â€
While Hanley, Edmonds and their colleagues conspired to create a soundtrack that could stand impressively on its own merits, the Josie film itself was a mess. Its ingredients were enticing enough â€“ a trio of teen-comedy starlets as the Pussycats, indie-cinema darlings Parker Posey and Alan Cumming as a pair of loony-yet-conniving record-label execs, and a nice comic subplot involving teen consumerism, subliminal messages and mind control. Unfortunately, director/screenwriters Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (also the purveyors of Canâ€™t Hardly Wait and Made of Honor, among other non-classics) mashed those elements together in a jumble of spark-free dialogue and over-the-top sets and costumes that proved difficult to watch. â€œItâ€™s a shame, because Harry and Deborah were really funny,â€ Hanley recalls. â€œI thought it was going to be a great film, but it ended up not being executed as well as anybody had hoped.â€
Still, the music did manage to escape the shadow of the filmâ€™s failure, and Hanley wound up parleying the soundtrackâ€™s success into a post-Cleo career encompassing a wide range of Hollywood projects as well as a series of terrific solo albums. â€œThat [Josie] record was such a lucky break, in a lot of ways,â€ she says. â€œIt sold more than all the Cleo records combined, and the money allowed us to create some savings for the first time in our lives, allowed us to buy a house in Boston and then another one in L.A. when we decided to move here.
â€œWhen I really think back on it, we turned that Josie money into our life. Iâ€™ll always be grateful for that.â€
Buy the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack from Amazon.