Over 20 years since five 20-somethings took the world by storm with messages of “Girl Power” and irrepressible pop hits, Spice Girls are back. With a global reunion tour underway, it seemed only right to revisit one the wackiest chapters in the group’s (and cinema) history: Spice World, the movie that took Spice Girls from the charts and onto the silver screen.
Part musical, part satire and all savvy marketing, Spice World still baffles and delights decades after its release. If you were lucky enough the catch a doubleheader of the X-Files movie and Spice World (both include alien encounters), it’s the latter that would leave you scratching your head.
During filming, Spice Girls were already well on their way to becoming the bestselling girl group of all time and were working on Spiceworld, the follow-up to their debut album, which was released shortly before the film premiered in the UK on 15 December 1997.
Spice World features Mel B (Scary Spice), Mel C (Sporty Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) and Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) as extreme versions of their assigned personas and seeks to both celebrate and skewer the trappings of the pop star life.
Critically panned but universally loved, Spice World grossed over $100 million worldwide and earned cult status; it’s now a regular fixture at midnight movie screenings and nostalgic theatre runs. So board the double-decker Spice Bus and let Meat Loaf take the wheel as we reassess this cult classic.
Spice World boasted more veteran UK actors than any BAFTA awards. Some played prominent roles while others were blink-and-you-miss-them turns, or appeared for a sight gag. With an endless parade of famous cameos, you could make a random bingo card and win before the credits roll. Richard E Grant plays the girls’ manager, Alan Cumming is a documentarian who follows the group around and Meat Loaf is their trusty tour driver. (When the plumbing on the bus goes south, he professes, “I love these girls and I would do anything for them, but I won’t do that.”)
And that’s not even counting the villains. James Bond himself, Roger Moore, plays a very Bond-inspired villain with a pet pig, while Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage) plays a Daily Mail-type newspaper owner who’s out to ruin the girls’ reputations.
Directed by Bob Spiers, who famously oversaw the comedy institution Absolutely Fabulous, it’s no surprise that Ab Fab alum Jennifer Saunders also makes an appearance, along with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Bob Geldof, Jonathan Ross, Jools Holland, Bob Hoskins, Elton John and even Elvis Costello as a barman, such was Spice Girls’ star power.
Spice World is incredibly self-referential and was the perfect excuse for the girls to poke fun at their own “Spice” personas while acknowledging how limiting they were. “Blah blah blah, girl power, feminism, d’you know what I mean?” says Mel B as she wears Ginger’s signature uniform.
Due to the movie-within-a-movie premise, much of Spice World features screenwriters pitching different film plots for the girls to star in, each more outlandish than the last. Boot camp? Check. Alien encounter? Yep. The same kind of spitballing that’s satirised in the film was clearly the tactic the filmmakers embraced themselves.
Embrace of camp
Spice World meets all the qualifying factors of a camp. It’s so bad it’s good, but makes an honest effort to be a fully-fledged film. Written by Kim Fuller, brother to Spice Girls’ manager and pop music impresario and reality TV architect Simon Fuller, the plot didn’t need to make sense. (After all, you don’t watch Xanadu for a lesson in Greek mythology, you watch it for Olivia Newton-John on roller skates.) Spice World isn’t so much a narrative film, then, as it is a vehicle for infectious pop anthems and the five charismatic women behind them. Years later, Fuller would go on to gift the world with another musical film: From Justin To Kelly.
Fashion was an integral part of the Spice Girls package and if there’s one thing that Spice World got right, it’s the costumes. From Mel C’s Adidas tracksuits to Geri’s platform go-go boots and Posh’s little Gucci dress, Spice World cemented the girls’ signature uniforms but also let them play dress-up on a large scale. “This was not a normal movie in the sense that you have a story you tell with costumes, it was more like a fashion showcase,” said the film’s costume designer Kate Carin, in an interview with InStyle magazine.
In one scene the girls abandon a clichéd photoshoot and stage one of their own, dressing up as film and music icons, from Bob Marley to Diana Ross, while another scene features hunky back-up dancers who turn around to reveal assless chaps – much to the surprise to every parent in the audience.
Every scenario is essentially an excuse to dress the girls in ridiculous outfits. They go full Private Benjamin at one point, clad in varying interpretations of camouflage during a boot-camp scene, and, later, they channel Barbarella as the Spice Force Five. Club kids, drag queens and shiny suits: Spice World is a time capsule of 90s fashion at its peak.
It’s still topical
The fashions and references are all 90s, but much of Spice World feels incredibly topical today, which explains why the movie doesn’t feel dated. As a 90s take on The Beatles’ groundbreaking movie A Hard Day’s Night, Spice World also captures the level of maniacal fandom both groups inspired, and the setbacks of pop stardom. From exploitative work schedules to tabloid rags desperately trying to take them down, Spice Girls fight villains that are both cartoonish and all too real.
1998 saw the rise of aggressive paparazzi feeding the new 24/7 gossip news cycle while the last vestiges of privacy were already being eroded away. While “Girl Power” certainly wasn’t a radicalised form of feminism, the film’s themes of self-empowerment and friendship are still relevant today.
At its core, Spice World is an unabashed, cinematic love letter to the power of pop music and serves as a reminder of how Spice Girls became a cultural phenomenon that spiced up the world.