EditorÁ¢€â„¢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 Á¢€” a treatise on the bandÁ¢€â„¢s participation in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You Á¢€” 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 Á¢€” and that if the words Á¢€Å“KayÁ¢€ and Á¢€Å“HanleyÁ¢€ 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, Á¢€Å“Cardinal Mahoney of Cool.Á¢€ 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 thereÁ¢€â„¢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 filmÁ¢€â„¢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 Á¢€” on a listening post at a Virgin Megastore Á¢€” 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 didnÁ¢€â„¢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 filmÁ¢€â„¢s release. It was pulled together by executive-producer Kenneth Á¢€Å“BabyfaceÁ¢€ Edmonds, with songwriting contributions from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, the Gigolo AuntsÁ¢€â„¢ Dave Gibbs and Steve Hurley, once-and-future-Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, and Fountains of Wayne/Á¢€Å“That Thing You Do!Á¢€ tunesmith Adam Schlesinger.
But the key to JosieÁ¢€â„¢s success was Josie herself. Kay Hanley brought to the fictional bandÁ¢€â„¢s lead vocals the same balls-out propulsiveness that she gave Letters to CleoÁ¢€â„¢s hits during the 1990s, and her fiery delivery of such terrific tunes as Á¢€Å“3 Small WordsÁ¢€ and DuritzÁ¢€â„¢s Á¢€Å“Spin AroundÁ¢€ lend them a credibility that the film itself sorely lacks. Hanley also provided on-set guidance to the filmÁ¢€â„¢s Pussycats, Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid, leading a Á¢€Å“band campÁ¢€ 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. Á¢€Å“They already had a Josie when I signed on,Á¢€ she says, Á¢€Å“but by the time I got to L.A. they had let the original Josie go Á¢€” not because she sucked, but because she was too good. Kenny had chosen somebody from his world, and it was like a womanÁ¢€â„¢s voice coming out of Rachael Leigh CookÁ¢€â„¢s mouth. It just didnÁ¢€â„¢t work.
Á¢€Å“That left me in a position to swoop in and get the gig, but it didnÁ¢€â„¢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 (Á¢€Å“Mother, MotherÁ¢€) 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.Á¢€
HanleyÁ¢€â„¢s husband, former Cleo guitarist Michael Eisenstein, wound up playing guitars and bass on the soundtrackÁ¢€â„¢s songs. Meanwhile, Edmonds was helping Hanley overcome her insecurities. Á¢€Å“This was my first gun-for-hire gig,Á¢€ she says, Á¢€Å“and there was a lot of trepidation going in. I had never considered myself much of a singer Á¢€” 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.
Á¢€Å“The songs had been written already [though Hanley and Eisenstein contributed the track Á¢€Å“ShapeshifterÁ¢€], 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] Á¢€ËœYou DonÁ¢€â„¢t See Me,Á¢€â„¢ I said, Á¢€ËœI canÁ¢€â„¢t sing that!Á¢€â„¢ Kenny said, Á¢€ËœYes, you can,Á¢€â„¢ and he worked really patiently to boost my confidence. To this day, I canÁ¢€â„¢t listen to that track without thinking, Wow, I canÁ¢€â„¢t believe I did that.Á¢€
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 Á¢€” 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 CanÁ¢€â„¢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. Á¢€Å“ItÁ¢€â„¢s a shame, because Harry and Deborah were really funny,Á¢€ Hanley recalls. Á¢€Å“I thought it was going to be a great film, but it ended up not being executed as well as anybody had hoped.Á¢€
Still, the music did manage to escape the shadow of the filmÁ¢€â„¢s failure, and Hanley wound up parleying the soundtrackÁ¢€â„¢s success into a post-Cleo career encompassing a wide range of Hollywood projects as well as a series of terrific solo albums. Á¢€Å“That [Josie] record was such a lucky break, in a lot of ways,Á¢€ she says. Á¢€Å“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.
Á¢€Å“When I really think back on it, we turned that Josie money into our life. IÁ¢€â„¢ll always be grateful for that.Á¢€
Buy the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack from Amazon.