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The Boston Phoenix Irresistible Force

It's a "Spice World" after all -- and we just live in it.

By Gary Susman

JANUARY 26, 1998: 

Spice World is essentially critic-proof. Not because the movie is too innocuous to merit a rabid panning, or because 50 million Spice Girls fans can't be wrong, or even because the target demographic for the film is too young to care what any grown-up writes about the movie. Rather, it's that the Spice Girls, who have cannily marketed themselves through shameless overexposure, are just as shrewd at deflecting the critical backlash by anticipating it.

Spice World, which purports to follow several days in the Spice Girls' busy lives as they prepare for an important concert, spends a lot of time poking fun at the quintet's public image, but even more time lacerating the media, from the scandal-hungry British tabloids to the very Hollywood bigwigs releasing this movie. If, as Spice World implies, you can't believe anything you learn about the Spice Girls from the papers or television, you can't believe what this film tells you either. The Spice Girls thus emerge with their mystique, their damaging secrets, their embarrassing truths still protected by the impenetrable façade of their public personas. Can they really sing? Are they really that nice? Are they secretly on ego trips, or at war with one another, or leading steamy romantic lives? After seeing the movie, you still won't know for sure.

The portraits of the five Girls are deliberately superficial (unless they're really that shallow!), establishing personality through a series of tepid running gags. For example, Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm) is . . . obsessed with sports! Posh Spice (Victoria Adams) . . . is fixated on clothes and make-up! Scary Spice (Melanie Brown) likes to say things that are mildly outrageous. Baby Spice (Emma Bunton) is so cute and innocent that she can smile her way out of trouble. And Ginger Spice (Geri Halliwell), the smart one, spouts useless trivia about marine biology.

The Spice Girls flit from one public appearance to another aboard a customized English double-decker bus, laughing and gossiping and talking about clothes as they make their way through the movie's gumball-colored universe. (Young girls should love Spice World; it's a 90-minute pajama party.) Tagging along are a frazzled manager (an aptly apoplectic Richard E. Grant), a down-to-earth personal assistant (Secrets & Lies' Claire Rushbrook), an authorized documentarian (Alan Cumming), and an unauthorized, creepy paparazzo (Rocky Horror's Richard O'Brien). Both the pretentious filmmaker and the mercenary photographer dream of piercing the veil to reveal the "real" Spice Girls; neither succeeds.

There's also a team from Hollywood (George Wendt and Mark McKinney) trying to pitch the Spice Girls on various horrible ideas for movies. Late in Spice World, it becomes clear that they've sold the quintet on the film we're now watching, whose patent silliness and implausibility is another winking sign that this portrayal of what the Girls are really like is not to be believed. The working model here is the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, but where that film seemed spontaneous and revelatory about the Fab Four's personalities, Spice World seems as impromptu as a Soviet May Day parade. As Grant's Clifford says, "If they want to be spontaneous, they have to clear it with me first."

Still, there are some surprises, some very weird jokes and cameos that will baffle youngsters, not because they're risqué but because they're arcane. The bus driver is played by Meat Loaf (20 years after Roadie and millions of records later, he's still driving a bus for other pop stars), who gets a punch line that is a tortured reworking of one of his hit-song titles. One character muses on the fleetingness of fame and then orders a drink from a bartender who turns out to be Elvis Costello. In keeping with the swinging-London motif (less Beatles than Austin Powers), Clifford ultimately answers to a Chief who resembles a James Bond villain (he's played by Roger Moore, and instead of stroking a cat, he strokes a piglet) and who speaks in inscrutable, belligerent CEO-isms built on barnyard metaphors.

The Chief isn't evil. He's just a fact of life, an omnipotent, impregnable incarnation of entertainment-state global capitalism (hence the pig?). So are the Spice Girls. Resistance is futile.

Welcome to their World

NEW YORK -- Apparently, making a movie was part of the Spice Girls' master plan for world domination from the beginning. Spice World is merely the latest step in the heavily hyped British bubblegum quintet's conquest of all media, from records and picture books (and merchandising, from potato chips to wallpaper) to their upcoming six-month world tour.

"We actually decided it about four years ago," Melanie Brown (Scary Spice) says of the film, "when we got together and were living together and were managing ourselves. We had all these things we wanted to do. We wanted to release an album. We wanted to talk about our own opinions. We wanted to be the positivity to young kids. To finally be able to do it now and see it on the big screen is such an achievement for us because it wasn't an overnight thought."

Still, there have been some speed bumps along the way. Sales of their second album, Spice World, have been slow in America. The British tabloids have been digging for dirt (not hard to find in the case of Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell, who used to be a nude Page 3 model in the tabs). Each of the five has had a supposed ex-boyfriend sell a story to the media. In November, the band fired manager Simon Fuller (who helped orchestrate their rise to stardom and whose brother, Kim Fuller, is Spice World's screenwriter); they still won't say why they fired him or who is managing the band now. (They insist it's not Geri, who is nonetheless clearly the leader and the most spin-conscious of the five.)

The film is clever enough to poke fun at the quintet and their problems. "I wouldn't even call it problems, actually," says Geri. "That movie really is a piss take. We're making fun of the whole situation. We never see problems and negativity. We just turn it into humor and positivity."

"As for the backlash," says Mel B, "there's always going to be critics out there who find it very hard to digest that five girls are up there managing themselves. We've managed ourselves twice before, and we're doing it again. Some critics, especially if you're male, find it quite undigestible."

The Spice Girls display more personality in person than on screen. Geri is the most gregarious, followed by Mel B, Emma Bunton (Baby Spice) Bunton, Victoria Adams (Posh Spice), and shy Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice). In real life, they don't rely on fashion statements to emphasize their individuality; at the interview, Geri and Victoria are even wearing the same leather sheath dress. "If you think about the '90s anyway, whether it's music, whether it's fashion, whether it's film, anything goes," says Geri. "There's no set code anymore. I think that's really brilliant. That's what the Spice Girls is about. Maybe if you want to read between the lines, you see the statement is that you don't have to conform to any particular genre. You can just be your individual self, and you can still stand together." ("Oh, dear," groans Mel B.)

The Spice Girls want to be squeaky-clean role models, despite their short skirts and Wonderbras. Says Mel B, "If you look at us five, we're quite normal. We're not some six-foot-tall skinny model who's got, like, an eating disorder." "We get spots. We've got fat bums," Emma chirps in." Mel B goes on, "So I think it's quite healthy for kids to look at us and think, 'Well, you can make the most of yourself.' If you want big hair, have big hair. If you want to wear your trackies [gym clothes], wear your trackies. I think sexiness should come from within, anyway."

The movie is certainly sex-free, even kiss-free. "That's because we don't kiss anyone," says Mel B. "That's the reality of our week."

Did the desire to keep the movie PG restrict the romance quotient? "No," says Geri, who is loudly interrupted by Mel B: "Yes, I wanted a sex scene with Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington, but I got, 'No!' "

Explains Geri, "You've only got 90 minutes. You can't squeeze in --," whereupon Mel B interjects, "And I'd be longer than 90 minutes anyway."

Does the movie offer any surprises about the Spice Girls for American viewers? "Hopefully nothing," says Mel B. "We're just the Spice Girls. Hopefully nothing will be like shock, horror, surprise."

"Victoria in the film is very funny," says Emma. "Her humor comes across, and that's brilliant, which a lot of people don't see."

For her part, Victoria says, "People have a lot of preconceptions about British people being quite into themselves and not up for taking the piss out of themselves. And that is one thing we really do, we send ourselves up. And that might be a surprise for people, how much we are up for that."

Geri concludes, "One thing I'm really proud of, when we entered the media arena, we've always claimed, 'What you see is what you get.' We're not perfect."

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