Spice World

The five babes from Britain serve up sass and song in a vacuous debut that looks like one long, convoluted music video.

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

DESPITE THEIR trademark mantra "Girl Power," the Spice Girls' new film, "Spice World," is less a call to female empowerment than it is a device to A) show Spice Girl tits, B) show Spice Girl ass and C) showcase the bouncy British babes singing their bubble-gum hits. The film is a kitschy faux-documentary about the Girls' meteoric rise to fame and the various people who try to help/hinder them along the way. Of course, thrown into the mix of flesh and fantasia are various declarations of Wonderbra feminism -- peace, love and clothes! -- but such gestures aren't enough to make "Spice World" seem like anything more than one long, convoluted music video.

Originally conceived by a British father-son music management team, the Spice Girls burst onto the international pop music scene two years ago and immediately captured the imagination and wallets of legions of mostly young, mostly female fans. Worried that their managers might not be up to the task of total world domination, the Girls dumped them (yes, this is still real life) and endeavored to deliver their spunky message to the largest audience possible.

The "Girl Power" publicity machine was humming long before the lights dimmed at the San Francisco "Spice World" screening. Twelve-year-old girls rushed the stage as flacks dangled Spicy gifts -- Spice pencils, Spice posters, Spice T-shirts, Spice CDs -- before the kids' eager faces. "Hey, I neeeeeeeeeed one!" screeched one girl from the balcony. In lieu of previews, an MC coordinated a Spice wave throughout the theater, as every fan undulated to the Spice Girl beat. The pre-game festivities were the perfect segue into "Spice World" -- which, in essence, is one big pep rally for the group.

The movie opens with the camera following the gabbing girls as they make their way through a labyrinth of backstage corridors after a show. They stop for a moment to air-kiss Elton John before they are greeted outside by thousands of ecstatic Spice fans. They sign several autographs before boarding their very own sorority house on wheels -- the Spicemobile, a double-decker bus driven by classic rocker Meatloaf and emblazoned with the Union Jack. In a scene torn from the pages of a women's magazine, the girls are shown reading their horoscopes, arguing over clothes and getting into a cat fight. From there we accompany the Girls as they cavort about London and cope with various misadventures on their way to their debut live performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Implicit in the Spice Girls' "Girl Power" message is a reminder to "Be Yourself!" It's a no-brainer then that the Spices -- Mel C. (Sporty), Mel B. (Scary), Geri (Ginger), Victoria (Posh) and Emma (Baby) -- would use their screen debut to flesh out their Spice identities. Posh Spice sports a perpetual pout and labors over which of her many Gucci dresses to wear; Sporty Spice pumps iron, sprints after crooks, rides her stationary bike and generally looks buff; Baby Spice sucks on lollipops and frolics with stuffed animals ("I'm always going to be Baby Spice," she insists. "Even when I'm 30!"); Ginger acts ditsy, while Scary proves she's one mouthy broad. In one typical scene, the girls decide to dress up like each other and scramble their Spice personas -- suddenly Baby Spice is Posh Spice and Posh Spice is Scary Spice and -- well, you get the idea. In the end, the girls decide that they are most comfortable as themselves (there's a message in here somewhere, kids) -- and besides, Sporty would never trade her Adidas for Posh's spike heels! At the very least, the movie provides a stage for the girls to showcase their wacky wardrobes. Remember the Solid Gold dancers? Substitute gold lami for neon Lycra and you've got the Spice look.

Is there a plot sandwiched between the numerous costume changes? Actually, there are several non sequitur subplots woven together -- and that, along with a dearth of acting talent, is "Spice World's" biggest flaw. The jumbled story line pivots around the dubious intentions of several caricatures -- each of whom, ironically, represents an arm of the Evil Media. There's the editor of a British tabloid who hires a daredevil reporter to catch the Girls doing naughty, unspicelike things; a documentarian who follows the Girls in order to capture the "essence" of Spice; and a smarmy Hollywood producer (George Wendt), who tries to pitch a Spice Girl movie to the Girls' rigid (and very unspicy) manager, Clifford (Richard Grant). Roger Moore, in a role reminiscent of the omnipotent Charlie from "Charlie's Angels," plays "The Chief," a record company executive who wears silk robes and ascots, strokes baby animals and dispenses Eastern philosophy while keeping a constant eye on his Girls.

Another subplot involves honorary Spice Girl Nicola (Naoko Mori), the girls' best mate, who has been knocked up by her deadbeat boyfriend. When Nicola asks the girls to be godmothers to her baby, Posh wants to know: "Do godmothers get stretch marks?" In the midst of all this, the girls bump into some aliens when they go into the woods to pee -- but thankfully, all the extraterrestrials want is to snap a few photos and cop a feel.

Fame and fortune isn't without its lonely moments, however, and the Girls both sentimentalize their past and fantasize about their future in dozens of flashback (the Girls before their big break) and flash-forward (the Girls as mums) sequences. "In the old days, it was, 'Where is our next meal coming from?'" one of the Girls wistfully recalls. "Now it's 'Where is our single going?'"

The Spice Girls certainly put their money where their motto is. When they get into a tiff with their manager over their professional priorities, Scary spits out, "Self-respect, freedom and friendship are more important than a gig!" And when Spice friend Nicola is in labor, the girls are right at their pal's bedside. As Nicola grunts, groans and finally delivers a -- you guessed it! -- girl, the Spice Girls chime, "Now that's Girl Power!"

I don't understand the appeal of the Spice Girls as women, role models or actresses, but then I'm not 9 years old. But I do know this: The whole theater -- kids, teens, adults (and yeah, maybe even a critic) -- was tapping feet to the Spice Girls' catchy sounds. When I asked the 12-year-old girl sitting next to me what "Girl Power" meant to her, she said: "It's a saying for the '90s -- it means that girls have freedom and they can do anything." Sounds good -- but will it carry her through to 30?

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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