Spice World is frivolous, feminist fun 20 years later
Viva forever, girls!
Wanna feel really old? Spice World (the movie) was released in the U.S. 20 years ago. The critically-panned and plotless endeavor by the pop group known as the Spice Girls makes up for what it lacks in artistic or intellectual expression by being a joyful and ridiculous yet self-aware romp.
As it turns out, re-watching the flick as an adult 20 years later is just as — if not more — enjoyable an experience. There are sexual innuendos you certainly didn’t pick up on as a preteen. There’s a new appreciation for the, let’s call it, avant-garde fashion. There are cameos you didn’t spot and central themes (or just one) that are actually even more relevant today.
Yes, it’s shamelessly self-promotional and the girls’ acting is appalling (looking at you, Posh), but there’s still plenty in there to spice up your life — or at least a Sunday afternoon.
Let’s set the scene a little, shall we? It’s early 1998, Bill Clinton is president, you watch Titanic on VHS three times a week, you earnestly look after your Tamagotchi, and your favorite band? Well, it was five girls from England with questionable singing ability and REALLY big shoes.
In the late ’90s, the Spice Girls were everywhere. Made up of Melanie Brown (“Scary Spice”), Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”), Emma Bunton (“Baby Spice”), Geri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”), and Victoria Beckham, née Adams (“Posh Spice”), the band was ubiquitous — on the tops of the charts, the sides of buses, the covers of lunch boxes. You name it, there was a product with their faces on it.
By 1997, their sophomore album Spiceworld was ready to flavor the pot, and what better to accompany a surefire hit record than a movie? Here’s where it gets good: This was no straight-to-DVD endeavor or Disney Channel original. Spice World was released in movie theaters worldwide and fast became a box-office hit. In the U.S. the film broke the record for the highest-ever weekend debut for Super Bowl weekend with box office sales of $10,527,222. Worldwide, the movie grossed $77 million, and later more than $100 million in DVD — or more likely, VHS — sales. Can you name another movie from the era (or ever) with five women as its leads that grossed anything remotely close to that?
It was a quick production that capitalized on the band’s upward momentum. It was less about the music and more just a random collage of sketches, cameos and a loose plot about the perils of fame. Still, there was some music in there: The smash lead single “Spice Up Your Life,” the dreamy Spanish-guitar-led “Viva Forever,” and the fantastic and feisty “The Lady Is a Vamp.” Even some B-sides and album tracks made the cut — does anyone even remember “Do It”? I didn’t, but somehow still knew all the words when rewatching it.
If you were a fan of the girls back in the ’90s, there’s a good chance you were also a huge proponent of girl power. Maybe you would even strike a pose, make a peace sign with your fingers, and yell the words every time a photo was taken. Maybe that was just me. Watching this movie 20 years later, it holds some elements of feminism that I could’ve only hoped to really appreciate as a preteen. Sure, there are also glaring problems we wouldn’t stand for in 2018 — one girl’s sex appeal is wholly based on her infantile looks, and the only woman of color in the group is dubbed “scary” — but there are also early stages of feminism that are paraded on the surface, if not fully explored.
First off, five women lead this movie and the only other sympathetic character is a pregnant friend of theirs whose boyfriend has run off and left her. Romantic relationships with men are mentioned in the passing — an ex did this or looked like that — and at one point Emma even wishes she could just order a man like she orders a pizza. (They’re a commodity, but not a necessity.)
Male roles (besides the cameos, which we’ll get to) are limited to the girls’ on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown manager (played by Richard E. Grant), his boss (Roger Moore, who spends most of the movie stroking a cat or a pig and speaking in convoluted metaphors), and a villainous newspaper editor (Barry Humphries) who, bored of the positive headlines, plots to take down the band in a bid to sell more papers. The manager is easily and often overthrown by the girls; Moore — though fabulous in the James Bond/Charles Angels-esque role — is irrelevant; and the evil editor is easily scuppered by the band in the end. No man in this movie stands a chance against girl power.
Though told they’re part of “a well-oiled global machine”, the Spice Girls frequently flout authority and do their own thing. They leave a photoshoot halfway through when they grow bored of the male photographer (Dominic West), they abandon their tour bus to go have some independent fun, and they even acknowledge their one-dimensional roles as they lament that their nicknames don’t really cover the breadth of their personalities. After ditching the photoshoot, the ladies decide to dress up as each other, reeling off one another’s token phrases and taking on the personality traits attributed to their one-note personas, thereby acknowledging the fickle, superficial nature of the roles ascribed to them by the marketing gods. The film points out that, in the media, the girls play characters that they can slip on and off as easily as a platform shoe. Even if the world doesn’t think there’s more to them than a hair color or interest in sport, they do — and they’re here to show it.
Heck, they even turn voyeurism on its head in one scene. As the credits roll, the girls look into the lens and call out a couple for “snogging in the back row” and then accuse anyone watching Spice World at home on video of having nothing better to do with their time than watch their movie. It’s a nice reminder that we’re watching them by their invitation, not the other way around. The power is theirs.
And for any young, impressionable girls looking for a role model or the confidence to pursue their dreams against the odds, they need look no further. There’s nothing particularly refined about these girls — not even Posh; they’re just regular, relatable, twentysomething ladies who somehow, without obvious talent, made it big, kept some modicum of control over their careers, and did it all with joyful abandon — and that’s pretty empowering in and of itself.
Feminism aside, this movie was never intended to be taken seriously — you gather as much during the opening scene when the words “Based on an idea by the Spice Girls” scroll across the screen. The slapdash manner in which random sketches — dreams, fantasies, flashbacks — and characters are woven together to form an incomprehensible plot makes you think the band sat around one night drinking wine and throwing ideas into the wind that somehow landed on screen.
Of all the random, tangential plot lines, one intergalactic intermission is perhaps the most absurd. After asking their bus driver (Meat Loaf — I’m getting to the cameos!) to pull over the tour bus so they can go to the bathroom in the woods, the girls stumble upon a spaceship complete with aliens with “squidgy faces” and “really cheap green coats.” Such is the Spice Girls’ far-reaching appeal that even other-worldly beings want tickets to the band’s sold-out Royal Albert Hall show!
Later, there’s a murder-mystery skit (yes, that’s Hugh Laurie as Agatha Christie’s Poirot), a bootcamp scene, and multiple ridiculous movie pitches, which might be a nod to the diehard dedication and exploitation of teen fanbases (but who wouldn’t see Spice Force 5, the story of martial arts, explosives, and counter-espionage agents?) And then there’s the car chase sequence to end all car chase sequences: In the penultimate scene of the movie, the girls race through London in their Union Jack tour bus, driven by a stiletto-clad Posh Spice; they wave to the Queen and Princes William and Harry as they pass Buckingham Palace, almost run down two old nuns in a Mini Metro, discover a bomb on the bus (!!), and even jump the gap of a rising Tower Bridge.
It’s worth seeing this movie for that (on-budget) moment alone, even if they’re later reprimanded by a policeman (Kevin McNally) for “flying a bus without a license and frightening the pigeons.” Classic British problems.
Has a movie with quite so many cameos ever existed? Unlikely. Here’s a comprehensive list:
Elton John as himself
Michael Barrymore as Mr. Step
Jools Holland as a musical director
Roger Moore as the Chief
Richard Briers as the angry bishop Geri offends
Bill Paterson as Brian
Meat Loaf as the bus driver
Jonathan Ross as himself
Elvis Costello as the bartender
Bob Geldof as himself
Hugh Laurie as Poirot
Bob Hoskins as himself/Spice Force 5 Geri in disguise
Elvis Costello as himself
Dominic West as the fashion photographer
Kevin McNally as the policeman
Peter Sissons as himself
Jennifer Saunders as herself/a fashionable lady at a party talking to Posh
Stephen Fry as the judge who sentences the girls for not producing any hits
*Alan Cumming plays Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth, the documentary filmmaker, but it’s less of a cameo than an actual role.
Like I previously pointed out, Spice World is not trying to be some critically-acclaimed art house masterpiece. It’s silly and it flaunts it, and flourishes because of it. Entertainment doesn’t need to make your furrow your brow, shed a tear, or question all your life decisions to be worth absorbing. It can just be brightly-colored, frivolous fun with great panache.
This movie has aliens and archbishops popping up within 20 minutes of each other; it has random storylines that go absolutely nowhere and it shamelessly promotes the Spice Girls’ brand all while acknowledging that it’s doing so. It points to the ridiculousness of buying a ticket to come and see this movie, but tells you it’s okay because there’s still fun to be had. No one tricked you into thinking this was going to be anything other than what it is. It’s escapism at its best. It’s bubblegum pop packaged in cheap paper with too many bows and a sh-t-ton of glitter. It’s a surreal experience — and it’s supposed to be.
Spice World is also only 90 minutes long… so why not take a short break from the horrors of your Twitter feed and head back in time a couple of decades to spend a moment with five girls who have “fire in their eyes, hunger in their bellies and great big shoes on their feet”? I’ll bet my Spice Girls snapshot collection that you’ll enjoy it. After all, in the words of the Girls, all you need is positivity.