‘Spice World’ perfectly captures Spice Mania during Cool Britannia
Although Spice World: The Movie is certainly not a critically acclaimed feature, it is a very important addition to the British film industry as it was shot during the height of Cool Britannia — a period of increased pride in British culture in the ’90s, following the tumultuous years of the ’70s and ‘80s. Shot in a similar vein to The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Spice World follows the Spice Girls — Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice), Melanie Brown (Scary Spice), and Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice) — as they prepare for the biggest performance of their career at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
In 1997, there was a renewed sense of optimism as New Labour soared into power under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It marked the end of Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s ruling, which had disrupted and destroyed the lives of the working class for almost two decades. At this point, the success of Britpop, which brought British rock music to the mainstream through the likes of Blur, Oasis, Suede, and Pulp, was well-established. Drawing inspiration from pop music of the previous decades, Britpop paved the way for the larger movement of Cool Britannia. Although the Spice Girls don’t necessarily fall under the iconic Britpop music genre, they were arguably a huge part of the movement, which wasn’t only concerned with music, but with attitude, art, fashion, and politics.
Everything in Spice World perfectly captures and celebrates ’90s Britain, starting with the Spice Girls themselves — well, at least from their POV: it’s important to clarify that the Spice Girls were true Thatcherites as she spoke to their Girl Power ideology. The film opens with the girls climbing into their massive Union-Jack-decorated tour bus with fans filling up the background. There are also many establishing shots of London, all showing the famous city in its prime, with popular landmarks, such as Big Ben, and the climax of the film featuring Beckham flying the tour bus over the Tower Bridge as it begins to rise to let a boat through the River Thames. While the Spice Girls are rehearsing for their live performance, they are followed by fans, paparazzi, documentary filmmakers, and take part in a meet and greet with fans. They were the biggest stars on the planet and, although the film was fictionalised with added drama, it really did represent who they were and their mad lifestyle. “Spice Mania” arose to describe the obsession fans had with the Spice Girls, cementing the chaotic fandom culture we know today.
While Spice World can be viewed as the type of film and culture that Josie and the Pussycats (2001) makes fun of, the end result was unlike anything you’d expect to come from a famous girl group making a fictional film about their lives. In fact, its absurdist and surreal nature reveals the film to be satirical. It abandons all story and screenwriting rules as it leaves characters and subplots unresolved in favour of exploring entertaining set pieces, such as a military-style training montage and when the film stops to pay homage to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind — or maybe they’re simply making fun of the strange fans they undoubtedly met.
The main plot can be summarised as the Spice Girls navigating their fame and personal lives while preparing for their Royal Albert Hall performance — but alongside the aliens, there’s even more wacky scenarios, such as the paparazzo who climbs out of the toilet at the mansion the girls are staying at. Talk about toilet humour! Also, the inside of their tour bus is like the TARDIS (bigger on the inside). Not to mention, they break the fourth wall during the credits, but also through the documentary filmmakers following them, especially when Hollywood executives (George Wendt and Mark McKinney) start pitching what will happen to the Spice Girls in the third act, which is intercut with it actually happening to them. When the executive asks, “Why?” about the introduction of a bomb, the writer responds with, “Those are the rules,” which further comments on and makes fun of the absurdity of Spice World’s actual plot and breaking of traditional storytelling rules. The Spice Girls, however, are in on the joke of their silly, camp, meta film. They even made sure to poke fun at each of their individual personas — for example, when Chisholm says it must be hard for Beckham to decide if she should wear the little Gucci dress, the little Gucci dress, or the little Gucci dress.
Kim Fuller (brother of Spice Girls manager, Simon), who wrote the script with additional writing from Jamie Curtis, revealed that the Spice Girls themselves contributed script ideas and often went off-script while filming. Speaking to VICE, he said that the girls were first offered a deal by Disney to do a film, but the Spice Girls didn’t like their script. “It was a bit Disney-fied,” he recalled. “I think it was about a young single mother of one of the girls, fighting hardship to form the band.” After Disney’s option ran out, Fuller asked his brother for a shot at writing the script. “I did a very rough script. It was all so fast,” he said. “I thought, You can’t expect the girls to act characters, so let them be themselves. I’ll make it a week in their life, and make it surreal and kind of weird.” However, Sony executives were confused by the script. “They didn’t get the story-within-the-story subplot (the Hollywood executives pitching absurd plot ideas for a Spice Girls feature film). And I was like, ‘Why not? It’s the Spice Girls. What level of reality do you want?’”
One of the biggest associations with Cool Britannia, which still rings true today, is Halliwell’s Union Jack dress, which she wore during a memorable Spice Girls performance at the 1997 BRIT Awards. Speaking about the dress, Halliwell told Vogue in March 2020 that it was originally a “little black Gucci dress” that her sister Natalie stitched a British flag tea towel to. Halliwell said she added the peace sign to the back because a stylist told her the idea was racist (based on associations with National Front, a racist party who notoriously used the flag), and, as her dad was a mechanic, she used car spray paint to paint her boots red to match the dress. “The length of the dress is the sexuality and the big bomber boots are saying, ‘and you know what, you’re not gonna mess with me either.’”
Halliwell had no idea how much impact the dress would have. After the performance, a photo of her in the dress was all over the front page of every newspaper. It became attached to their Girl Power image, therefore empowering young girls and women all around the world, alongside increasing British pride. Fans would wear their own versions of the dress/flag motif and soon the flag would officially crop up in a lot of fashion. “It came back to that thing of being proud of who we are,” Halliwell said. She continued to wear updated versions of the dress on different tours.
There’s a prolific use of notable British celebrities in Spice World, with the Spice Girls obviously being the most important. Some of the most prominent stars, who appear as either themselves or as minor characters, are Jonathan Ross, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Bob Geldof, Bob Hoskins, Jennifer Saunders, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Michael Barrymore, and Jools Holland. American singer Meat Loaf starred as the Spice Girls’ tour bus driver and Gary Glitter filmed a four-minute cameo appearance that was cut due to his arrest shortly before the film’s release. Naoko Mori played the Spice Girls’ pregnant BFF, Richard E. Grant was their out-of-control manager, and Richard O’Brien a creepy paparazzo. Roger Moore also featured, evoking a James Bond character as the head of their record label, and Alan Cumming was the documentary film director. According to the Guardian, Bob Spiers, the director of Spice World, had no idea who the Spice Girls even were when he was first offered the job of directing the feature (Saunders convinced him to take it). Spiers had directed lots of British television, including Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, and Bottom. He also worked on the BBC sketch shows French and Saunders and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and so he was able to secure these cameos for the film. Everyone coming together was a huge collaborative effort between British stars from all industries.
Spice World proved to be a very successful British film made at the height of its subject’s career, using British culture to its advantage, thus creating the perfect time capsule. It was a box office success but failed critically. I can’t imagine anyone then or now would get anything out of the film unless they‘re huge Spice Girls fans, but it’s now considered a cult classic. Although the girl group disbanded in 2000, they have since reunited for arena tours, which highlights how popular they were and still are. Spice World remains a true relic from the days of Spice Mania and celebrates the nostalgic side of ’90s British culture.