SPICE WORLD (aka The Spice Girls Movie to anyone from the 90s) is as strange and wonderful a beast as the phenomenon on which it capitalised. It made the unusual decision to forego a typical tour movie (comprised of painfully staged behind the scenes segments) in favour of an actual scripted narrative. Modelled in the vein of similar vehicular enterprises as A Hard Day’s Night, it served a rigid financial purpose and was received as such at the time – so spirited was Roger Ebert’s hatred of the film that he proclaimed it the worst film of 1998, just three weeks into January of that year. What a delight to report then that he couldn’t have been more wrong. For Spice World is quite brilliant in its own anti-film way. Most unlike its contemporary alternatives, its excessive weirdness, its rampant celebration of British pop culture in all its forms, and its ruthless self-awareness was far ahead of its time. Spice World was meta before meta was a thing.
Beginning with a cutesy tale of the Spice Girls attending a fan event in the run up to their big Albert Hall concert, the film quickly maps out the different ‘characters’ that make up the Fab Five and for the most part they’re more or less exactly as they always appeared in ‘Kiss’ magazine: Mel B is tempestuous and hot-tempered, Victoria is crabby and fashion-obsessed, Mel C is energetic and outgoing and Emma is…well…kind of a baby. Geri is the only one given a second dimension to her character – her revealing clothing and ditzy appearance belie a genius with a penchant for Interesting (read: useless) Facts and big (read: fake) words like “compromisation”. One would be forgiven for dismissing the film early on as the vacuous fluff it so easily could have been.
Once the film sets up its bizarre fantasy mythology however, things really get going – the ‘Spice Bus’ which houses an interior far bigger than its outer casing suggests (a clear nod to the TARDIS in Doctor Who), their long-suffering tour manager Clifford (a career-best Richard E. Grant, dressed curiously similar to the Riddler for many sections of the film), Clifford’s shadowy boss (played with eyebrow-raising efficiency by the legendary Sir Roger Moore who spends the film clad in familiar Bond outfits, including the infamous safari suit) and their bus driver Meat Loaf (who will do anything for the girls except unblock their toilets).
The tabloid media’s vampiric relationship with fame and celebrity isn’t just touched on, it’s absolutely fondled, groped and debased – a chameleonic Barry Humphries eats so much scenery as media mogul Kevin McMaxford that viewers fear he may choke on the Spice Bag of greed that dominates his life. Alan Cummings plays a documentarian trying to showcase “the real Spice Girls” behind the glitz and the glamour. Clifford is fine with this, provided Cummings do it “on schedule”. This knowing exchange ruthlessly deconstructs the countless shallow behind-the-scenes tour movies that have been made in the decades following the Spice phenomenon (I direct particular ire toward the utterly toothless Morgan Spurlock/One Direction thing from a few years ago). By casting aside the veneer of ‘structured reality’ and embracing raw fantasy madness, Spice World became something above and beyond its stupid successors.
The other essential element is the pantomime American movie producers (played by Cheers’ George Wendt and Mark McKinney). They desperately try and pitch bogus Spice-vehicle after bogus Spice-vehicle, shite-talking their way in the hopes of possible Hollywood glory. The film responds in kind, mirroring the events described by Kinney’s character to a ludicrous degree (it feels at times like an episode of Community) The movie ends with them smiling and dancing to ‘Spice of Your Life’, fully aware of the mighty cash cow they’ve secured through sheer blackguardery. For a film made to capitalise on such a manufactured craze, its gleeful embrace of its own capitalism isn’t just refreshing – it’s groundbreaking.
Breezing along in a mightily economic 90 minutes, the film ironically only stops being interesting when we have to spend time watching the Spice Girls sing and dance. In and of itself, Spice World shouldn’t be seen as a ‘film’ in the traditional sense. It’s better enjoyed as a kaleidoscopic art installation – a collection of scenes that ponder the nature of a pop culture phenomenon. Leave your brain at the door and allow the film to free your soul, for isn’t that what you want (what you really, really want)?. As a film made to capitalise on a pop group, it probably won’t convert any detractors. As a satire of media and celebrity, it’s kind of a masterpiece.