Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Senior Thesis: Spice World

My collection of senior thesis writings continue today with Spice World. After rediscovering this film in high school (I had seen it millions of times as a kiddie), I have always wanted to defend it. Yes, Spice World is hardly a "great" movie, but there are some smart things going on. This is by far the silliest essay of the bunch, however this needed to be said.

Name this movie: a British musical group, playing themselves soon after achieving quick, meteoric success in the UK and US, is documented right before a very important live performance. While traveling in and around London, the group has to deal with inane members of the press, crazed fans, strict managers and wacky, drawn-out comedic situations to highlight each group member’s personality and sense of humor. There is a crisis of faith and a moment when it looks like they will not make it to their live performance. However, they pull it together at the last minute and make it to the show, precisely showing us in their performance what made everyone fall in love with them in the first place.

If you guessed Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, then, obviously, you would be right. But if you guessed Spice World, the oft-reviled film starring late 90’s pop phenomenon the Spice Girls, you would also be correct. Fascinating, isn’t it? I find it interesting that these films are so similar, yet A Hard Day’s Night is often touted as one of the greatest rock ‘n roll films ever made while Spice World has become something of a pop culture joke after the critical bashing it took when it was released in late 1997/early 1998. So why exactly is Spice World one of the most hated films ever made while A Hard Day’s Night continues to enjoy popularity 45 years later? I have a couple of theories: One, the film’s study of 90’s British girl group pop music is much narrower than Night’s 60’s British rock and, consequently, less approachable to viewers who do not like that type of music. Two, the predominantly middle-aged white male film critic was never going to appreciate a film that caters principally to both 10-year-olds and gay men with its camp aesthetics and (however misguided they may be) ideas about “Girl Power.” Three, audiences increasingly raised on and in love with meat-headed action blockbusters that treat silly plots and wayward dramatics like they were depicting the Holocaust have no idea how to react to a film like Spice World, which continuously pokes fun at itself and its own ridiculousness without thinking twice about it. I am not here to argue that Spice World is some sort of lost masterpiece worthy of study in film schools around the country; rather, the film deserves a reappraisal now that 10-plus years has passed since its release.


One of the biggest complaints about the film is the criticism that the Girls are terrible actresses and do not give good performances in the film. I will admit that the Girls are not actresses in the traditional sense and certainly do not approach the film in the manner Meryl Streep or Philip Seymour Hoffman would, but to simply dismiss them is too easy. Outside of the film, the Girls were giving performances every single time they had to step in front of the camera, every time they had to give an interview, every time they met an adoring fan. Their “Spice” identity certainly stemmed from their own personalities, but they had to embellish it for the public to the brink of insanity. This 24-hour commitment to character, simply transferred on-screen for Spice World, may not be “acting,” but it becomes almost a tribute to “star persona” performances from the Studio Era . In the film, the Girls completely own this style of “acting” and repeatedly bring it to our attention, whether to enhance or poke fun at their identities. The Spice Bus, their main mode of transportation, is split up into five sections, each styled to reflect the Girls’ identity (for example, Posh has a lighted runway while Sporty has an exercycle). They often retreat within these identities without even thinking about it, like it has been so ingrained in their heads it just comes naturally now. After hearing a snippet of a radio interview that tries to understand the “real” them, the Girls have a conversation about their identities, which prompts Sporty to ask rhetorically, “Why do we feel we have to play into stereotypes…all the time?” The moment becomes almost revelatory for them, as they are forced to consider just how much of their “Spice” identity has become blurred with their true self. A photoshoot follows, which grants them the perfect opportunity to, borrowing a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, “return to zero” and try to find themselves again. A montage follows where the Girls dress up as each other and parody their defining characteristics (for example, Ginger, portraying Sporty, punches the air shouting, “Ha! I’m so Sporty!”). While all in good fun, this moment highlights two important ideas about the role of identity in the film. First of all, these roles are just that and not meant to be mistaken for their “true selves.” Secondly, the roles are perfectly cast as is, with these parodies proving that, for instance, Emma does not and will never make a good Scary Spice.

This self-awareness is what truly separates Spice World and A Hard Day’s Night, serving as a reminder of what separates 1960’s pop culture from the late 90’s. When The Beatles became the largest band in the world, pop culture as we know it today was just beginning to emerge. It would have been impossible for The Beatles to joke about pop personas in the same way the Spice Girls do simply because people had not developed these expectations. By the time Spice World had come around, the public had been exposed to pop culture and imitations of A Hard Day’s Night for decades. This allowed Spice World to poke fun at the Girls’ personas without worrying that the audience would not understand. If anything, the boy band craze that followed soon after the Spice Girls proved that pop acts could be further reduced to a mere formula, with singers chosen mostly for how well they fit into a mold (such as the “bad boy”) rather than molding their persona from their own identity as the Spice Girls did.

Spice World, for the most part, is a silly film made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the Spice phenomenon. There are moments, however, when real and interesting issues are brought up and dealt with in the film’s unique, offbeat way. A Hard Day’s Night may have the respect and critical adoration, but Spice World, because of its quirky humor and adoration of nonsense plots and dialogue will forever have a small yet eternally devoted legion of fans ready to defend it to the death. Not bad for one of the worst movies ever made.

1 comment:

Adam M. said...

Outside of the film, the Girls were giving performances every single time they had to step in front of the camera, every time they had to give an interview, every time they met an adoring fan. Their “Spice” identity certainly stemmed from their own personalities, but they had to embellish it for the public to the brink of insanity. This 24-hour commitment to character, simply transferred on-screen for Spice World, may not be “acting,” but it becomes almost a tribute to “star persona” performances from the Studio Era.

I never thought about it this way-- that the "Spice Girls" were not acting in Spice World; rather, the members of the "Spice Girls" were playing "The Spice Girls," acting in Spice World. That definitely adds to the poppy/campy factor.

If anything, the boy band craze that followed soon after the Spice Girls proved that pop acts could be further reduced to a mere formula, with singers chosen mostly for how well they fit into a mold (such as the “bad boy”) rather than molding their persona from their own identity as the Spice Girls did.

This is really interesting, though I'm not sure the timeline is completely right. I *think* (and verified with Wikipedia, if you want to consider that "verified") that the boy band craze came first, with the New Kids and then the Backstreet Boys. While everyone was trying to replicate this success, the Spice Girls took a step back-- away from the formula-- to infuse their act with some authenticity, or at least conviction. I think that's why they shot to fame, and so many other groups came and went.

Fascinating stuff though.