In the midst of NaNoWriMo, my friend Matt agreed to do a recurring guest column for the blog. Called “THAT SAID…”, Matt’s column will look at the redeeming features of films wider audiences might not regard as works of “art”. In his last column, he laid out his manifesto: the guidelines he’s following for his critiques.
Now, welcome to Matt’s defense and analysis of the 1998 Girl-Band escapade “Spice World”.
by Matthew Lyons
Spice World, 1998
I want so badly to believe that everyone had better things to do with their time. I want to believe that there were a thousand other excellent projects that all, through some cosmic clusterfuck of bad cinematic karma, happened to just fall through, all at the same time, and everybody had no choice but to do the Spice Girls movie. I mean, house payments gotta get made somehow, you know? They don’t pay for themselves, and even in 1998, banks weren’t the most forgiving.
I want dearly to believe that. But, no. No, this is a movie that people chose to make. With their own money and time and talents, and (presumably) without the influence of any serious chemical dependencies. That’s the world we live in.
The ugly facts are simple: Spice Worldis your basic cult-of-personality dreck. Poorly written, poorly acted, weirdly directed, campy, ugly, silly, self-indulgent, and above else, a shameless cash-in on a well-oiled global machine that’s less about music than it is about money.
This is an objectively bad movie.
That said, it’s also way, way more fun than it has any right to be, which, in a way, makes it successful in its means. It’s a movie about The Spice Girls – “campy” was a cornerstone of their appeal. Hell, one of the members admitted to intentionally dressing like a drag queen for most of the group’s run. But you know something? They weren’t trying to make a good movie. They were trying to make a movie that their fans would enjoy.
It’s also weirdly great in certain ways – it has some really remarkable parts, like the self-awareness, the Inception-like levels of reality it puts us through, and maybe most of all, the brilliant casting.
If the movie itself feels uneven, that’s because it is. TVtropes.org describes Spice World as “a by-the-numbers ripoff of A Hard Day’s Night, a self-spoof, and a harsh satire of the Spice Girls and their culture.” I see no reason to disagree with that, but that’s fine. Spice World is supposed to kind of be a rip-off of A Hard Day’s Night. It revels in that fact. Half made up of surreal, cartoony vignettes, half of patched-together plot, starring the biggest band in the world at the time? The similarities are too obvious to not be intentional. At least it has fun with it, you know? Spice World knows that it sucks, and at least has fun with that fact (The Tower Bridge jump being the foremost example here).
It could be a joyless, humorless waste, and it would have been forgotten just as easily as it was made. That it knows exactly what it is makes it stand out. It doesn’t take itself too seriously or pretend it’s something that it’s not. Enjoy it for what it is – if it’s terrible, hey, fuck it, at least it’s having fun being terrible. What more than fun do you want from the Spice Girls movie? You want a little flash of intellect? Hey, fine, it’s got that, too.
There are like, three levels of reality at work in the world of this movie. Maybe four. Bear with me. There’s (1) we the audience watching this movie from the comfort of our couches, (2) the main narrative, there’s the (3) fictional chase scene Mark McKinney tells Richard E. Grant about at the end of the movie, and the (4) mid-credits scene where they’re shooting the movie that we just watched, and everyone is just being themselves instead of the characters they played in the movie we just saw EXCEPT FUCKING MARK MCKINNEY WHO’S STILL PLAYING THE SCREENWRITER HE PLAYS IN THE MOVIE.
The core narrative of this movie is at least three, or as many as four levels of reality removed from the audience. Christopher Nolan can suck it; Bob Spiers had him beat by TWELVE YEARS. So what if it doesn’t make sense? That’s the magic of Girl Power, broseph.
For a movie that so caters to the twelve year olds and the youths and whatnot, there’s a surprising amount of metatextual meat in here. The movie’s narrative itself isn’t the reality, and our reality isn’t reality, either – capital-R-Reality is that third-or-fourth-reality when the Spice Girls start talking to the camera, and the bomb glued to the underneath of their bus from the chase scene goes off, off-screen, that’s the accepted really-real Reality. Capital-R Reality. The one that frames the rest of all of it. This level of reality takes us out of the narrative only to change gears and pull a U-turn back into crazyland. The goddamn Spice Girls, temporal wizards that they are, are sending us through recursive realities, and no one notices. As the movie closes, they seem to take us to some clever behind-the-scenes footage, only to reveal that the guy that WE recognize as Mark McKinney from Kids in the Hall is really still actually a screenwriter in Spice World (the world, not the movie Spice World, try to keep up here) named Graydon, and the Spice Girls recognize the audience themselves (ourselves?), therefore confirming their existence in a sort of perpetually-1998 super-reality, seeing across all realities. This is the place where someone makes a SPICECEPTION joke.
Do you see what has happened? By acknowledging the camera, by pulling us into their super-reality as part of the entertainment, the Spice Girls have folded reality over onto itself, and now up is down and black is white and Cool Britannia holds sway over all. How has no one explored the implications of this?
In the meta-reality of Spice World, celebrities are at once their characters and their real selves. The lines between fiction and fact begin to blur. The world smudges and you’ll never know what exactly fits where, ever again. Whatever theory of Spiceception or Spiceality (oh, jesus, someone please help me) you adhere to, there’s no denying that it’s a world filled to the brim with People, capital P.
There are an astounding amount of People in this movie, People that anyone – anyone – watching the movie is guaranteed to recognize and enjoy in some way or another. Sure, sure, there’s the unnecessary and inexplicable cameo from Elton John, everyone knows about that. But that only scratches the very surface of the movie.
When this came out in theaters, the kids were here to see the Spice Girls, but their parents would have recognized Meat Loaf, Elvis Costello, Richard O’Brien, Bob Hoskins, Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Saunders, Mark McKinney, Richard E. Grant, Roger Moore, George Wendt, and on and on and on. Now, everybody, parents and former kids alike who watch this movie for the first time in a long time (or ever) is guaranteed to say “Hey!!” at least once when a familiar face pops up on screen. Who knows what happened for them to show up in this movie at any given point, but I’m glad they’re here.
And they’re here for one of two reasons: One, because the filmmakers behind this masterpiece secretly have unimpeachable taste, or two, because the filmmakers obviously drove a dump truck of money up to their houses so they could make the movie more palatable for the adults in the audience. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The reasoning matters so much less than the benefit of having them there, in the movie, talking to Mel and Mel and Victoria and the blonde one and the slutty one.
Spice World is retroactively brilliant in its casting, too – there are early appearances by Alan Cumming, Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty from The Wire, the sleazy scumbag douche from 300, etc.), Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for some reason) and Naoko Mori, who, ten or so years later, would be introduced as the smart-yet-conflicted Toshiko Sato on Torchwood. Hell, even Mr. Gibbs from most (? I didn’t see the fourth one, so who knows) of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies shows up as a cop for no apparent reason at one point. Well-cast, or at least, intricately-cast to the point of being somewhat prophetic of the A- and B-actor lists yet to come.
Look, like I said, this isn’t a good movie. Anyone could tell you that as soon as you tell them “It’s the Spice Girls movie.” Whoop-de-fucking-do. Point is, it’s worth watching. It’s fun, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it plays with reality when you’re not expecting it, and the people in it are kind of fucking brilliant. Just don’t go into it wanting more than it gives you. But that’s the great part: it gives you more than you expect.
– I laughed at the Meat Loaf “I’d do anything for love” throwaway joke, I don’t even give a shit what you think.
– No tour bus looks like that on the inside, I don’t give a shit if it’s a double-decker or not. Did they steal a fucking TARDIS or something? I’d say that was a clever reference that the movie made, but that’d be giving it WAY TOO MUCH credit. Which I clearly am not in the business of doing. Not with a movie like Spice World, no. #pleaseletMelBbeatimelordplease
– Does anyone else think that it’s nice to see Richard E. Grant not play a horrible, villainous dickhole for once? I mean, what was the last movie he was in before this? Was it Hudson Hawk? I think it was Hudson Hawk. So he doesn’t have the best track record with quality, but at least he’s not orgasmic over his own evil machinations this time. Wait, I should totally do a re-review of Hudson Hawk – Rachel, add that one to the list.
– “Melvin B, Melvin C,” … “Howtie and the Blowfish,” ha!
– I love how all the Spice Girls character traits seemed shoehorned in (Sporty is… uh… sporty, Baby is infantile, Ginger is secretly a nerd and certainly not just the one in drag with red hair) except for Posh, who just gets to act like a catty, elitist, obstreperous hosebeast like all the time. Not a lot of imagination required for that one, eh?
– Nicola is, what, their secretary or something? No room for Pregnant Spice on Spice Force Five? She adds nothing to the story, she just fucking shows up from time to time, being pregnant all over the place and that’s about it, and when the girls come together to show her a good time out on the town, it takes them a grand total of twelve seconds to abandon her on the balcony so they can go downstairs and Spice Girl it up while their own music plays on the club stereo. I’m going to say that again. They abandon their pregnant friend to go dance to their own music.
– Am I the only one who noticed the SUPER RACIST lyric in the performance of “Spice Up Your Life”? “Yellow man in Timbuktu/Colour for both me and you/Kung fu fighting” Uhh… what?
– Did you know there’s a Spice Girls song called “Viva Forever”? Yeah, I didn’t either, but it’s definitely a thing, I’m not even kidding.
– Holy shit, I just realized that the “Wannabe” video is all done in one take.