Editor’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 – a treatise on the band’s participation in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You – 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 – and that if the words “Kay” and “Hanley” 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, “Cardinal Mahoney of Cool.” 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 there’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 film’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 – on a listening post at a Virgin Megastore – 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 didn’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 film’s release. It was pulled together by executive-producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, with songwriting contributions from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, the Gigolo Aunts’ Dave Gibbs and Steve Hurley, once-and-future-Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, and Fountains of Wayne/“That Thing You Do!” tunesmith Adam Schlesinger.

But the key to Josie’s success was Josie herself. Kay Hanley brought to the fictional band’s lead vocals the same balls-out propulsiveness that she gave Letters to Cleo’s hits during the 1990s, and her fiery delivery of such terrific tunes as “3 Small Words” and Duritz’s “Spin Around” lend them a credibility that the film itself sorely lacks. Hanley also provided on-set guidance to the film’s Pussycats, Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid, leading a “band camp” 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. “They already had a Josie when I signed on,” she says, “but by the time I got to L.A. they had let the original Josie go – not because she sucked, but because she was too good. Kenny had chosen somebody from his world, and it was like a woman’s voice coming out of Rachael Leigh Cook’s mouth. It just didn’t work.

“That left me in a position to swoop in and get the gig, but it didn’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 (“Mother, Mother”) 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.”

Kay Hanley circa 2001Hanley’s husband, former Cleo guitarist Michael Eisenstein, wound up playing guitars and bass on the soundtrack’s songs. Meanwhile, Edmonds was helping Hanley overcome her insecurities. “This was my first gun-for-hire gig,” she says, “and there was a lot of trepidation going in. I had never considered myself much of a singer – 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.

“The songs had been written already [though Hanley and Eisenstein contributed the track “Shapeshifter”], 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] ‘You Don’t See Me,’ I said, ‘I can’t sing that!’ Kenny said, ‘Yes, you can,’ and he worked really patiently to boost my confidence. To this day, I can’t listen to that track without thinking, Wow, I can’t believe I did that.”

Pussycats Rosario Dawson, Tara Reid and Rachael Leigh CookWhile 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 – 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 Can’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. “It’s a shame, because Harry and Deborah were really funny,” Hanley recalls. “I thought it was going to be a great film, but it ended up not being executed as well as anybody had hoped.”

Still, the music did manage to escape the shadow of the film’s failure, and Hanley wound up parleying the soundtrack’s success into a post-Cleo career encompassing a wide range of Hollywood projects as well as a series of terrific solo albums. “That [Josie] record was such a lucky break, in a lot of ways,” she says. “It 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.

“When I really think back on it, we turned that Josie money into our life. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

3 Small Words
Pretend To Be Nice
Spin Around
You Don’t See Me
Josie and the Pussycats

Buy the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack from Amazon.