At the Movies: Spice World (1997)

spiceworld1997

Spice World

★★★½☆

1997 • 93 minutes • Columbia Pictures

Oh, to have been a nerdy preteen in the mid-nineties instead of a glue-eating, cat-tossing elementary school student! I can see it now (then?)—watching Xena: Warrior Princess and developing a massive crush on Lucy Lawless, actually engaging with Buffy The Vampire Slayer (I might even love Joss Whedon in this timeline!), and, of course, convincing my mother to let me buy Spice Girls merchandise because they were British and so was The Vicar of Dibley, so there.

I am purposefully cherry-picking, but it does, from a certain, determined angle, feel like there was just more mainstream female-led media aimed at my kind of people in the nineties and very early aughts. The rebooted Doctor Who, which originally highlighted its companions as young women with lives and families of their own, has become the other half of Moffat’s internal monologue writ large on the BBC. (Prayer circle for Peter Capaldi to take over the show in a bloodless coup.) Supernatural has held court for ten years. We’re gradually getting more and even better, with the wild success of Orange is the New Black, Scandal, and Orphan Black, but I’m a woman grown. Sometimes, I just like to imagine my formative years happening during a time when even the fluffiest entertainment for teenyboppers came from women who embraced the feminist label, instead of the dread “I’m not a feminist, but…” soundbite.

Also, I really wanted to see Spice World because I love bad movies.

A bizarre hybrid between a cute riff on the eternally effervescent A Hard Day’s Night and an obvious cash grab, Spice World must be seen to be believed. The plot is thin, the jokes ranging from the occasionally cutting to the overwhelmingly bland to the bizarre (let’s have someone threaten to commit suicide!), and the meta is threefold, with a film crew and a film studio courting the girls as they rush to a concert. The closest thing it resembles is a slightly less frantic and much more inclusive episode of Family Guy, where so much is thrown at you to see if it’ll stick. Not much of it does. I do feel for the parents who had to sit through this several times in the theaters in 1997. But everyone, from Roger Moore wandering around stark white sets petting an increasingly ludricous animal to Victoria Beckham (nee Adams) walking away with the entire film, is clearly having a ball, and that makes all the difference.

While watching the movie, I wondered if the same formula would work with, say, One Direction—both bands were fabricated, but One Direction was created right before our very eyes on X Factor. But the current onslaught of concert films are much more focused on “reality,” while the joy of Spice World—and, indeed, the Spice Girls as a whole—is how much it embraces artificiality. It’s a living cartoon whose self-awareness occasionally comes out in the film’s more inspired jokes, like a daring bus jump over the Thames being executed in miniature, due to cost, and Victoria’s refusal to get into certain costume changes. While obviously not planned, that late nineties’ fake future aesthetic (think Zenon) certainly helps, especially when the film decides to riff on Tarantino and have a studio executive propose a Spice Force Five movie.

But what makes Spice World a bearable experience (for those weirdos who don’t actually enjoy shoddy filmmaking) is that it’s entirely about female friendships. The plot, such as it is, kicks off when the girls are visited by their very pregnant friend Nicola (a pre-Torchwood Naoko Mori). On her introduction, she off-handedly comments that the father of the child left her. I assumed that he would make a dramatic reentry into her life in the third act, but that never came. Instead, the film, when it can focus, is much more interested in the girls pondering motherhood, doting on their friend, and ultimately nearly missing the concert so they can be there for the birth in a show of love and friendship. And this is repeated all over the place, from declarations of friendship to the casual way they hold hands as they go about their adventures. The girls tease each other, but never insult, and they actively celebrate their differences. There’s even a montage where they dress up as each other and gently rib each other for their styles. (Geri, playing at being Sporty Spice, loves getting to play around in a tracksuit; Mel C. tells her to back right off.) A mainstream film aimed at young girls that features enough women so different that such a montage can take place? Be still, my beating heart!

Ultimately, I like Spice World for the same reason that I liked Maleficent—it’s got exactly the right message aimed at exactly the right audience. It’s not a good film by any stretch, and its’ occasional airlessness makes for less than zippy viewing, but it’s a painless enough and hilarious enough experience that it’s worth revisiting.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

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