Film discussion

Looking back at… Spice World (1997)

Movie spin-offs featuring musicians playing themselves has never been anything new. From The Monkees to Miami 7, pop-stars being packaged as multifaceted brands has been around for decades. The quintessential pop brand of the last twenty years has still been the Spice Girls. At the height of their powers and influence, it was inevitable that the movie world would try and cash in, and thus the movie spin-off Spice World was born.

The Spice Girls, if for some reason you don’t know, were Melanie Brown (“Scary Spice”), Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”), Emma Bunton (“Baby Spice”), Geri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) and Victoria Beckham (“Posh Spice”). They arrived into the world music scene with “Wannabe” in 1996 and took over the world. The mantra of “Girl Power” that was bubbling under the masses via Kathleen Hanna and the riot grrl movement at the start of the decade was placed in the public mainstream. Their nicknames locked them into marketable unique personalities, representing what was great about Britain and being British.

This gives the film a very interesting look at pop culture of a more innocent time. A time before 9/11 and the rise of the internet and social media. It was a month after the introduction of BBC News 24 brought a more mainstream concept of the 24 news cycle to the masses. Previously only those with Sky TV could access Sky News. Earlier that year the Labour Party was elected after 18 years of Conservative rule and the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was also seen as young and part of a new exciting era for Britain.

Spice World, arguably, is a love letter to the “Cool Britannia” label that was highlighted throughout the mid-to-late 90s. Any groups like the Spice Girls automatically are met with cynical commentary via the internet. Whereas this was more localised and the group had their critics in the 90s, the internet creates negativity immediately that it feels more mainstream than just being in the print media. It’s something that the film tries to comment on as well, trying to provide commentary on tabloid culture.

Which might make it sound like Spice World’s tendency to get panned is a crime against humanity. It isn’t – you can clearly see why it gets these negative criticisms. The girls aren’t actors and half of the cameo’d special guests look slightly embarrassed to be there. The plot itself is a series of vignettes linked with the idea that the group are performing at the Royal Albert Hall in a week. So during that time they deal with interviews, photoshoots, surreal moments and a pregnant friend (Naoko Mori) that they want to spend time with. This conflicts with their constantly stressed manager Clifford (Richard E. Grant) that wants them to commit to a rigid schedule.

It’s hard to write it off fully, especially in hindsight. The nostalgia factor is there, and the five girls and the film are constantly self-aware with what they’re doing and who they are. The film plays up to the personalities that they’re given – even if never capitalises on what it’s trying to be: sub-version. The film often comments on things that are interesting: being more than what the mainstream media say that they are, but it doesn’t follow through on that. The film’s anti-press stance never fully goes anywhere but feels like it really should as Barry Humphries does his best to try and make Rupert Murdoch a bond villain.

By the time and action climax kicks in, the film loses any chance it has to try and get really clever. So the great idea for the finale feels rushed. It’s a shame, as the concept of the last act car chase being told as a movie pitch and toy buses could work a lot better than it should be. It hits the tone that the film wants; highlighting it’s odd moments and humour that it’s trying to hit but feels too little too late at this point in the film.

If the film was a little more clever in how it was handling it’s concept of the idea of the girls as products and not people then the structure would probably be more bearable. But then you get five minute sections of the girls dressed up as each other and then as famous women in history and going through bootcamp for no reason. It lets it down.

On a personal note, watching this after eighteen years, two things cropped up that I always remembered as being funny but forgot were in this film. There’s a moment where Richard O’Brien’s photographer is proving how good a paparazzi he is by showing Humphries’ editor photos of his own indiscretions like picking his nose and a photo “behind the bike sheds with Eileen Winters when you were twelve.” For some reason that line always gets me. The other is when trying to spell an alien fan’s name (it is that surreal a film at times) a question of how many k’s in a name is replied by Mel C saying “four.” Again – I remember laughing like a loon at twelve years old.

When it comes down to it – this is one of those films that’s probably best watched when drunk with some friends for the nostalgia value. Where one of you is laughing at it too much and another is live-tweeting it with an overuse of confused capital letters. Another is playing “spot the celebrity” and another is singing along to the songs.

Because it’s all about the songs at the end of the day.

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