Spice World September 3, 2019
Richard E. Grant
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
ccording to the James Bond-aping opening credits of Spice World (1997), the movie about to start is based on an “idea” by Simon Fuller and the Spice Girls. Once I started watching the film, which is a motor-mouthed and increasingly surreal comedy in the A Hard Days Night (1964) mold, I wondered exactly how the so-called “idea” popped up. Was it as simple as someone exclaiming "we should make
a movie!" during a dinner conversation, with the blind leading the blind after that? Or did it begin during one dinner conversation and get bigger with recurring get-togethers, with the brainstorming involving the girls saying things like “we should make a movie where Ginger makes out with an alien, Meatloaf plays a tour bus driver, and we help out a friend give birth.”
No point in speculating further, because I don't think it's all that necessary we know the details of how the movie came to the fore. Spice World, erroneously referred to as one of the worst movies of all time, takes place on a different solar plane, one perhaps named Spice World, where the less sense there is, the better. The film is set in the present day — in this case 1997, a few months after the release of the Spice Girls’ debut album — and covers the 72 hours before the troupe is set to headline Royal Albert Hall. That's the most straightforward thing about the movie.
Spice World isn’t a documentary. I’m curious what it might have looked like had it been one. Was it as fun to be a part of the group as this film portrays? The five “girl power”-espousing feminists, as portrayed in the feature, get along famously; they joke cuttingly yet lovingly, and every non-member they interact with is met both with jovial snark and a smidgen of vulnerability. How much truth permeates here?
We like watching these inflated versions of this quintet move about life. The bizarro Spice Girls are constantly taking endearing jabs at themselves — forever self-aware. “Should I wear the little Gucci dress, the little Gucci dress, or the little Gucci dress?” Posh Spice, a.k.a. Victoria Beckham, asks her bandmates rhetorically. Sporty Spice, a.k.a. Melanie Chisholm, rides on an exercise bike on the tour bus to pass the time, asking us, with just her grimacing rictus, if she’ll ever get to live her name down. At one point Baby Spice, a.k.a. Emma Bunton, who’s clutching a dum dum and who has her snow-blonde hair done in two high pigtails, wonders if she’ll have to keep up the sexy infant routine past 30.
In Spice World, the band embarks on adventures that might more precisely be described as misadventures. This is a Saturday-morning cartoon of a movie. In 92 minutes, screenwriter Fuller and director Bob Spiers pack in a boat chase, a lark in a haunted house, and of course that can-you-believe-it-happened performance at Royal Albert Hall. There’s a side plot involving a madcap newspaper owner, in the William Randolph Hearst style, obsessed with chipping away at the Spice Girls’ reputation to sell tabloids. The girls are also chased by a shiny-headed stalker, a man trying to make a documentary about them without their consent, and a couple of cineastes who relentlessly pitch an idea for a movie they have in mind to the group’s eternally imploding manager (Richard E. Grant).
The best set piece in the movie is an all-out action stunt. The group's tour bus, racing against time, must get over the Tower Bridge before it goes vertical for a tugboat below. Victoria takes the wheel from Meatloaf — who’s gone missing — and floors it. The bus manages to hurtle over just in time. The gag is that when the camera goes outward into a medium shot, we’re seeing a miniature of the bridge. The bus, a classic British double-decker, has transmogrified into a toy.
hy the vitriol against the movie? It’s been made too energetically and idiosyncratically to be hated in the same way a press-release-style behind-the-scenes documentary — which is the film's closest peer — might. Those reek of laziness; this one's almost dizzyingly busy, and in a becoming style. And the Spice Girls appear too invested in the project to be written off as going through the motions, milking their
doomed-to-be-short-lived fame for all it’s worth in an apathetic fashion. The enjoyment's palpable, and I think infectious as a result. The feature is hardly different from the aforementioned A Hard Day’s Night or other spiritually similar films like the Monkees’ Head (1968) or ABBA’s ABBA: The Movie (1977), which are partial to more loving critical embraces.
I surmise it has to do with the inarguable truth that the Spice Girls are for the most part lacking in talent — definitely an era-specific fad — and as such is a movie so loony not so likely to win over the skeptics. Critics aren’t wrong to notice the musical faults; Roger Ebert was right when he said that the band couldn’t even lip-sync all that successfully in his review. Yet in an unexpected twist, Spice World made me more vulnerable to appreciating the quintet it parades around. This Barbie Dream House of a movie makes a strong case that the Spice Girls were always in on the joke, and that they too knew their fame was predestined to be temporary. It's hard to completely resist. These five had a good time with what they once had. The film allows us to dwell in that pocket of time once more. B