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Josie & The Pussycats Are Way More Than A Fictional Band — Just Ask Kay Hanley

The Letters to Cleo frontwoman is a big part of Josie's reinvention, and she loves these lasting characters

Kay Hanley didn’t expect to be moved to tears when she sang songs from Josie and the Pussycats in concert for the very first time. Then again, she didn’t think she’d ever play those songs for an audience, let alone one that had waited over 15 years to hear "Three Small Words" live, away from their screens.

The Pussycats’ insatiably catchy pop-punk single is the most vivid anthem from the movie, and one that shines with killer performances from Rachael Leigh Cook, who played Josie onscreen, and Hanley, who served as Cook’s vocal double. But on September 26 at the Ace Hotel Theater in Los Angeles, it was the crowd’s reaction to "You Don’t See Me," a ballad bursting with the stuff of middle school love notes, that reminded Hanley just how much people loved the 2001 cult classic.

"People started screaming, and crying, and, like, singing every single word," she recalled. "I was wearing in-ear monitors so I couldn't hear people singing along with the other songs. I found out later that they were — really loudly. But when we were playing ‘You Don’t See Me,’ I could actually hear the crowd singing, and I was just like, ‘What is actually happening right now?’ Who knew?! The whole thing was really moving to me. I had no idea."

What’s happening right now is a major resurgence of appreciation for Archie Comics' resident punk-rock prom queen — and the lasting power of her character. At the Ace, Hanley — along with the actresses who played the Pussycats onscreen, Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid, as well as writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont — drew a capacity crowd for a screening of the film and a spirited Q&A with everyone above. The soundtrack was recently pressed to vinyl, so the reunion sprung up from the music, and a performance from Hanley and the band is ultimately what had many attendees (and Hanley herself) tearing up.

Hanley came to prominence as the lead singer of Boston rock outfit Letters to Cleo in the ‘90s, and was no stranger to the major soundtrack game by the time Josie and the Pussycats presented an opportunity. Letters to Cleo’s tunes underscored scenes from The Craft, Melrose Place, and other films and TV shows before 10 Things I Hate About You carved out a place for them in Hollywood thanks to their boisterous covers of Cheap Trick’s "I Want You To Want Me" and Nick Lowe’s "Cruel to be Kind" in 1999.

Their debut full-length album, 1993’s Aurora Gory Alice — which Letters to Cleo recently pressed to vinyl as well this fall, along with 1995’s Wholesale Meats and Fish and 1997’s Go! — got tons of MTV love, too: The video for its single, "Here & Now," was worked into regular rotation, and "I See" played over the end credits of a Daria episode in the animated show’s third season.

"It was kind of the golden age of soundtracks," Hanley said. "Soundtracks really were their own character in the movies! It was a completely different vehicle for finding new music, and a lot of those music supervisors had killer taste in music. Not only did it become a vehicle, but a really credible one.”

That’s definitely true of the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, as the original songs enriched the characters who played them. (Unlike the film, which faltered at the box office, it was a hit from the jump, and achieved gold status after selling 500,000 copies.) Hanley initially auditioned to sing for Valerie or Melody, Dawson or Reid’s characters, but a casting shakeup on the soundtrack side led to Hanley singing for Josie. "We did band camp together," she said of working alongside Cook. "We would just go into a dance studio that had a whole wall of mirrors. We’d get guitars or microphone stands and just practice singing the songs, so she could see how my mouth moved when I was singing, and I could see how she moved."

Her stage experience helped Cook flawlessly portray a budding rock star, and it didn’t hurt that she’s been a fan of Josie since the Pussycats first hit the pages of Archie Comics in 1969. Hanley's musical life mirrored Josie's, as she was 17 when she began collaborating with friend and guitarist Greg McKenna, with Letters to Cleo's lineup firming up in her mid-20s.

Now, with Riverdale putting a new spin on Josie and the Pussycats, Hanley — who’s heard nothing but great things about Ashleigh Murray’s take on the tenacious teenaged rock star, and plans to start binge-watching the CW show soon — is glad to see that little has changed, in that young women especially still see themselves in these characters who continue to pick up guitars and blow people’s minds.

"I was an Archie Comics freak," she says. "All of those characters might as well have been real to me; they were as real to me as television characters. I went into the newsstand and bought the comics — if there was a special Jughead one, I’d buy it. I was into it, and I think a lot of kids felt that way. The fact that all of these iterations come out every decade or so, a brand new expression of the comics, it just speaks to the strength of those characters and that world. They’re relatable but endlessly interesting. The politics of teenage relationships, like, that’s everything."

"I’m almost 50 years old, and I still have those kinds of politics in my life, navigating those relationships," she added. "It never gets easier. We can all relate."

Just as Hanley did on the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, Murray's Josie leaves her mark on adored hits, like Kelis' "Milkshake" or Blondie's "I Feel Love" — and she's able to leave her mark on Josie's legacy, too, by lending her crystalline voice to original songs that fans love as much as the covers.

And though some cat ears brought them together, it's clear to see that the women who brought Josie to life are the ones who keep her alive — and keep audiences coming back for generations.