I don’t think Spice World: The Movie is as good as Inception.
This winter marks the 20th birthday of a film that many had sneered at before its release, and many continue to sneer at now. Boasting a hard-won 3.4/10 score on IMDB, Spice World: The Movie pops up from time to time in lists slamming films involving pop stars, or, if it’s lucky, it appears on the ‘guilty pleasure’ carousel. For added fun, the late Roger Ebert had it as one of the films that he most hated. Yikes.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, personally, and have written about that before. Nor do I agree with Roger. For I do enjoy Spice World: The Movie for what it is: a daft, breezy, shonky and entertaining 90-odd minutes, that bundles as many little Post-It notes of ideas into a proverbial blender, and spits out a fun movie at the end. Is it a great film? No. It is particularly well made? Well, Scorsese was hardly shitting himself. But was it, and is it, fun? Well, yeah.
It’s hard not to feel, in hindsight and at the time, that there was an air of cynical cash-in about the movie of course, given that it zoomed into production less than a year after the Spice Girls broke through. Filming had to be shoehorned in around their schedule, and many of the star cameos were shot in a day or two at best.
But then slamming it for that overlooks the sheer populism and enthusiasm for the band at the height of their success. Bluntly, I suspect someone suggested ‘why don’t we make a movie?’ (Kim Fuller and the Spice Girls, according to the credits), and somebody else said ‘yes’. I’m sure someone, somewhere had a Harvard Graphics slide – Powerpoint hadn’t yet fully taken over – talking about ‘leveraging the brand’ and stuff like that. But I never got a sense of that while watching the film.
Rewatching it 20 years on, Spice World is a bit of a curious beast. It plays for long parts like a television special, with the production values to match. The microscopic plot is of the band playing their first live gig at the Royal Albert Hall, and the build up to that. Every now and then, to the film’s credit, it remembers its story, and returns to it. But then when the opening scene of your film is a cameo from Elton John greeting the band, you can’t say you don’t know what you’re getting.
And yet someone was having a lot of fun with this.
Aforementioned screenwriter Kim Fuller would be my guess. Fuller is the brother of Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, and I’m obliged to IMDB for informing me that he also wrote the American Idol winners’ movie, From Justin To Kelly, and the S Club 7 film, S Club: Seeing Double. I’m going out on a limb and saying that Spice World is the best of his unofficial music movie trilogy.
Because the things that are bundled in here are worthy of some praise. For instance, at one stage, the film stops just to do a little homage to Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Nothing massive, and it turns out that the aliens on board the spacecraft in question are just trying to blag Spice Girls tickets. Go forward a bit more, and there’s a mini-Agatha Christie spoof. Then there’s a pitch for a sci-fi movie. Then there are tips of the hat to Bond. Contrast that to something like One Direction: This Is Us, a more commercially successful enterprise where director Morgan Spurlock only seemed to be allowed off-piste for one or two moments at best. With this, it seems as though they worked out they had half an hour of singing to fit in, and an hour to do with what they will.
My favourite moment is the big action finale. Spoilers, folks, but this is the segment where The Spice Girls are on a bus painted with a Union Jack so large I half expected it to have a message about giving £350m a week to the NHS on the other side, with a chirpy pre-fame Nigel Farage driving it. Weird how the use of the Union Jack in the 1990s seemed a lot more innocent and apolitical.
Anyway, the bus was tearing through London trying to get the band to the Albert Hall on time. Intersecting with this is a pitch to Norm from Cheers about a possible film, that builds up to an expensive-sounding bus jumping Tower Bridge sequence. Cut to a toy bus, a toy bridge, and much guffawing in the cinema at the time. And on my sofa over the weekend.
It comes back to this. With Spice World: The Movie, they figured that people would pay money whatever, and thus they decided to have fun with it. And to try and make people laugh.
The cast is testament to that. Richard O’Brien gets to just potter around and be a private investigator, a character fleshed out as much as a savaged dog bone, and thus O’Brien opts to just go for it (not least in the mid-end-credits sequence). Meat Loaf (who took the role of the bus driver on when – get this – Frank Bruno dropped out), meanwhile, gets to do a gag about one of his songs, drive a bus, and then dance a bit. And then when – for mildly satirical reasons – it seems as though the Spice Girls have offended Catholics, they draft the late, great Richard Briers in to be a bishop as the voice of outrage. It’s like lots of little sketches, just mashed together until the film is full (the late Bob Spiers directed the movie, and his background was in television, with the likes of Fry & Laurie and French & Saunders Go To The Movies).
It’s then topped off with Roger Moore, stroking a white creature on his lap, dispensing brilliantly nonsensical pieces of advice to Richard E Grant as Clifford the manager. It might be me, but I reckon there’s a Bond spoof in there somewhere.
There’s a soupcon of pre-arrest 90s talent to be found too. Michael Barrymore has a cameo (he was drafted in when John Cleese turned the role down!), reprising his Strike It Lucky shtick. Then you get what, in hindsight, feels like an unfortunate cover of Gary Glitter’s Do You Want To Be In My Gang? It could have been worse: Glitter was arrested just prior to the movie’s release, and a four minute sequence featuring the disgraced singer was deleted.
Separately, mentions of Versace and Princess Diana were also erased in post-production, given their deaths in-between filming and release. (Hello to) Jason Isaacs had a cameo in there too, but this was cut. He’s, thankfully, still alive though.
The heart of it is the Spice Girls, of course, and the whole project was envisaged to be something in the style of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. There’s surprisingly little of their music – particularly when contrasted with the likes of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and the glorious Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – and instead, they’re encouraged to play on the personas they were projected at the time. Mel C thus talks about football a lot, Victoria’s every other line is about a dress she likes, and Emma Bunton talks about teddy bears and smiles a lot. In that sense, you get pretty much what you were expecting.
One more casting aside: there’s added fun for before-they-were-famous fans spotting Dominic West pop up as a photographer – The Wire was still a good decade or so away – and Kevin McNally as a policeman.
Spice World hit big in the UK in December 1997, and it’s worth noting that you can go right the way through the 1990s, and not find another film led by five women that’d gross over $25m in the US. On its opening in the US, it set a record for the highest debut over Super Bowl weekend. For the film proved a profitable enterprise, hauling in over $70m globally, and shifting over $100m of DVDs and – remember these? – videos (in the UK, you could buy a collectors’ tin version of the video release, where you had to pick your favourite Spice Girl. I do not have data as to who won).
It’s an odd film. Certainly, given how heavily music stars now have their brand managed, it’s hard to think of too many groups who could tackle something like this with their tongues so firmly in their cheeks. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had the rise of the concert tour film, with the likes of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, The Jonas Brothers and One Direction amongst those who have taken that path. It’s easier to give the impression that you’re allowing a glimpse behind the scenes in such movies, whilst still exerting utter control. With Spice World, there’s just a sense of going off to the pub with the Spice Girls, hearing them spout ideas and generally pissing around, and then rounding the night off with Peter Sissons dancing.
I do prefer Inception. But there remains a space on my DVD shelf for Spice World. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, y’know…