Properly construed, Spice World is one of the greatest films ever made, narrowly beaten only by Die Hard and Home Alone. There is much that is wonderful about the 1997 classic, and much that is merely good, but all of it is worth noting as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film.
In 1997, the Spice Girls were cresting the Girl Power wave. I, an eight-year-old weirdo in platform trainers with an imaginary boyfriend, revered the five-piece with a doglike devotion (except Geri—more on that later). The Spice Girls were my childhood soundtrack and the object of all my worldly ambitions. To quote Mel C's well-received 1999 solo offering, they were my northern star.
Of course, I watched Spice World in the cinema (many times), but my overriding memory of the film coincides with its 1998 VHS release. Now-defunct British retailer Woolworths was running a promotion: buy the VHS and get a free commemorative tin featuring the Spice Girl of your choice. My mom took my sisters and I shopping and we proceeded to fight all the way to the store. We were at a standstill: I demanded the Mel C tin, but my sisters wanted Geri.
Tensions were fraught. I already hated my sisters on account of the fact they each had two eyebrows while I, a sluglike monobrow (to my eight-year-old self, this seemed a very bad and unfair deal). It was unfathomable to me that my dumb sisters would even countenance the idea of choosing the Geri commemorative tin—she couldn't even sing! I howled like a calving animal in the VHS aisle, until, eventually, my mom gave in. The entire car ride home, I gripped the Mel C tin wetly and smiled wolfishly out of the window, so my sisters wouldn't see me.
Weeks later, on May 31, 1998, the traitorous Geri confirmed all my childlike suspicions and quit the band. It was an act that bookended my childhood, slicing it into two halves as neatly as Richard E. Grant’s perfectly-defined sideburns in Spice World. The Spice Girl's split defined those early years: there was the time before Geri left—when all was well—and then there was the post-split heartbreak.
A cultural moment was over. To quote another Mel C banger , things would never be the same again.
The period during which Spice World was produced—from pre-production in January 1997 through its cinematic release in December that year and then its VHS release in May 1998—perfectly mirrors the apex of the band’s success. It’s a euphoric moment in British cultural history: Tony Blair had just been elected; the economy was booming; British artists dominated the world charts, as "Cool Britannia" ruled. Things felt simple and even hopeful, in this pre-social media, pre-Iraq-war age—and the blithe, good-natured optimism of Spice World reflects this time.
Buoyed by the band's meteoric success, record executives had been toying with the idea of making a Spice Girls film for some time. "Wannabe" had been released in the UK in July 1996, but it wasn’t until the single was re-released in the States in January 1997—becoming one of the best-selling songs of all time by a female group—that the group’s manager, impresario Simon Fuller, began to take the idea seriously.
"The girls were being courted in Hollywood at the time, and they were offered a deal by Disney to do a film," remembers Kim Fuller, Simon's brother, who wrote the Spice World screenplay. (Everyone I interviewed for this feature refers to the group using the collective "girls.") But the group didn’t like the script Disney produced. "It was a bit Disney-fied, " Kim remembers. "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, Kim asked his brother for a shot at writing the film. "I did a very rough script," he says. "It was all so fast. I started the script in January, we shot it, edited it all, and it went out in December. That’s unheard of."
Kim's screenplay—working title, Five—was inspired by the Beatles’ musical comedy, A Hard Day’s Night. "It’s not a big genre, movies made with bands. There’s A Hard Day’s Night, and that’s about it," he explains. "I thought, You can’t expect the girls to act characters, so let’s just let them be themselves. I’ll make it a week in their life, and make it surreal and kind of weird."
A patchwork quilt of surrealist humor, hokey acting, and plot-holes clunkier that Mel B’s platform boots (Why is there a bomb on the bus? What happens to Meat Loaf?), the novice screenwriter's script was not met with approval by Sony executives.
"We gave the script to Sony, and they didn’t get the story-within-the-story subplot (featuring George Wendt and Mark McKinney as two Hollywood executives pitching absurd plot ideas for a Spice Girls feature film)," Kim remembers. "And I was like, 'Why not? It’s the Spice Girls. What level of reality do you want?'"
This was no bother, though: Kim's brother created the Spice Girls—and besides, the girls liked him. "Simon was my brother and they trusted me and had met me before," Kim remembers. "Because Simon was standing behind the production, and my relationship was already established, you were able to get things done how you wanted them to be done. I answered to him, and the girls answered to me, so there was a triangulation of me, them, and him."
Those pre-production weeks before filming marked the last moments of quiet before Spice Mania—a monstrous hydra in a union-jack dress—roared into force. "I didn’t know who the Spice Girls were," remembers Spice World producer Peter McAleese. "When we decided to make the film, they were just below the crest of their wave. They were up-and-coming, but hadn’t yet become the global phenomenon they did. By the time the film wrapped, they’d become huge—beyond anything any of us had ever expected. We were all blindsided by it."
During production, the Spice Girls’ celebrity accrued an unstoppable momentum. As their fame grew during the course of filming, Kim began a series of script revisions to accommodate the growing list of celebrities hoping to attach themselves to the production. "The film got bigger and bigger and everyone wanted to be in it," he recalls. "I thought, This could be a disaster. This could be my first and last movie, all at the same time.”
"[Agents would] ring up and say, 'Do you have any parts for so-and-so?' [and] I’d have to write something specifically,” Kim says. Aggrieved by the endless rewrites, Kim says, his script supervisor nearly quit.
At one point or another, pretty much anyone who was famous in the late 1990s appears in Spice World (including Gary Glitter, who had to be cut from the film after child abuse allegations against him were made public). But this revolving door of period-piece cameos arguably does the already-shaky script a disservice. By the time Bob Hoskins appears as Ginger Spice in disguise mid-way through the film, Spice World has devolved into a hodgepodge doner-kebab of celebrity cameos, glued together with the meat and gristle of ham-fisted exposition.
Still, it’s a lot of fun, especially Roger Moore’s gloriously campy cameo as the "Chief," the enigmatic head of the girls’ record label. One scene, where Moore recites a pseudo-Confucian philosophy while stroking a pet rabbit, Bond-villain style, almost didn’t make the cut.
"I’d written this ridiculous philosophy for him [When the rabbit of chaos is pursued by the ferret of disorder through the fields of anarchy, it is time to hang your pants on the hook of darkness. Whether they're clean or not]," Kim recalls. "But then I thought, O h, this is a bit stupid, so I cut the lines.” Arriving on set, Moore had memorized the scene Kim cut. "He goes, ‘I spent all of yesterday learning that fucking thing!’ So we put it back in." Predictably, he claims, the script supervisor lost her mind.
Of all the celebrity cameos in Spice World, Meat Loaf’s is the most profound because it leads to the film's best gag. (Meat Loaf is an American occasional musician best known for driving the Spice Girls’ tour bus.) Descending the stairs of the Spice Bus to complain that the toilet is blocked, Mel B asks Meat Loaf to unclog the drains. "I’ll do anything for you girls," he retorts, "but I won’t do that."
Meat Loaf’s appearance in Spice World almost didn’t happen—British boxer Frank Bruno was already cast as their bus driver, but he stormed off set in a rage after the girls refused to sign autographs for a young relative.
I wanted, very much, to speak with Meat Loaf in the course of my oral history, to ask a question clarifying an unresolved storyline that's bothered me since my first childhood viewing of the film: How and why did Meat Loaf allow a bomb to get on the Spice Bus?
In my efforts to get Meat Loaf to address this yawning plothole, I became deranged. My emails to his reps ranged from cajoling to outright begging. When this didn't work, I embarked upon an ill-fated social media campaign: #tweetloaf.
It’s not just Meat Loaf breaking hearts. When Alan Cumming’s people denied my interview request I responded with the imperiousness of a dictator and the short-sighted righteous anger of a 22-year-old blogger. "Fine if he doesn’t want to talk about it!!!!!" I email his reps. "In my opinion this was his best work!!!" (The New York Times agrees, describing his performance as "particularly droll.")
Eventually I’m forced to ask Kim to explain why there’s a bomb on the bus. "I suppose that is a bit of a flaw in the story," he concedes good-naturedly. "It was meant to be one of those surreal moments. I just thought, Oh, let’s just have a bomb on the bus."
Alongside the business of endless script rewrites, the crew had to deal with another unexpected pressure: white-hot media interest surrounding the eight-week shoot. Actress Naoko Mori, who played Nicola, the Spice Girls' best friend and de facto sixth band member in the film, briefly became the subject of intense press scrutiny.
"There was an article about me in [defunct British newspaper] News of the World calling me ‘Rice Spice,’" remembers Mori. "It was mildly racist, but also pretty hilarious."
Paparazzi and screaming fans besieged many shoots—like the scene where Nicola goes into labor at London super-club Ministry of Sound. "That day was crazy," Mori describes. "There were a lot of supporting artists on set, and the amount of paparazzi, press, and fans outside was incredible. I think that’s when I realized how humongous they were. And there I was—a nobody. I actually say that in the film: I’m just a nobody!"
Trying to keep paparazzi off set became a Sisyphean task for the Spice World production crew—especially when the press got creative. "Two of the most lateral thinking paparazzi had dressed themselves up as a pantomime cow," McAleese laughs. "They were hiding in a real field, of real cows, with a telephoto lens sticking out of the cow’s bottom, trying to sneak photos of the girls going to the set." For all their bullish efforts, the paparazzi never got their photos—their cowmooflage didn’t work. "An eagle-eyed security person spotted them, and they were ceremoniously removed, with great good humor," McAleese confirms. "I thought it was ingenious, really."
Despite the fact that Spice World featured one of the biggest bands of all time at the height of their fame, it was made on a relatively modest budget of just $5.5 million (it took over $100 million in worldwide box office receipts). As a result, the film has dated badly—or aged like a fine wine, depending on how you feel about cult films.
"We tried to put as much value on screen as we could, but we were limited by the available resources and time," McAleese explains. "The £4 million budget was tight, even in those days. Pre-production and the shooting period were very compressed."
Perhaps it's not surprising that no one predicted Spice World's success; the Spice Girls were systematically underestimated by record label executives searching for the next big male-fronted guitar group.
"If we’d known it was going to be quite so successful, we’d have pushed the boat out a little more in terms of the production," McAleese says. "There were sequences we jettisoned, because we couldn’t afford to do them properly. And we’d have gone larger in certain areas, in terms of on-screen production values." (Although the budget constraints at least contribute to my favorite scene in the film, in which a toy bus leapfrogs a miniature Tower Bridge in lieu of expensive CGI.)
Budgetary constraints aside, chaos reigned on set. "You’d go into the caravan and there would be five blowdryers going," Kim remembers. "I’m standing there with the pages for the day, trying to get the Spice Girls to listen to me, and Mel B is like, ‘I don’t want that line, it’s not funny, I want the other line.’" Gripes notwithstanding, everyone I spoke to for this article gushed about the Spice Girls' commitment to and engagement with the shoot. "The girls were so much fun," Mori says. "Very down to earth. We had a ball."
And according to Clive Tickner, the Spice World director of photography, there were darker battles being waged, too. Tickner claims that although director Bob Spiers had impeccable TV credentials including Fawlty Towers and Ab Fab, he struggled with Spice World, his first feature film.
"He was nervous about being given a movie," remembers Tickner. "You couldn’t stand very close to him at any time of day, because he was clearly throwing alcohol down his throat. He really was legless for most of the time. And it affected his decisions." (Spiers passed away in 2008.)
As a result, Tickner’s experience of working on the film was frustrating. He alleges that he lost six camera operators during the course of the shoot because they couldn't work with Spiers. From a filmmaking point of view, Tickner ascribes the dated aesthetic of Spice World to Spiers’ indecisiveness as a director.
"Pressures were brought to bear to sway the crew from working as adventurously as they could have done," he says, expressing disappointment that the film didn't live up to its initial promise. "The initial idea was to make it like the Beatles' film" he explains, citing the irreverent whimsy of A Hard Day's Night as an example of what the film might have achieved under more competent direction.
Despite this, Tickner does have some fond memories of the shoot. Without him, the iconic alien invasion scene might have crash-landed. "For some reason, no one was addressing the problem of what the spaceship was going to be on set," he explains. "Here was a very obvious prop in the script. An alien was going to come down in the spaceship. But the art department hadn’t been asked to make one."
Tickner improvised, calling in a favor with a lighting company he regularly used. "They had a trapezium sort of thing they used to hold the lights on stages," he recalls. "We strapped shedloads of smoke machines onto it. It was so heavy with all the cables that we had to have two cranes lift it in the air." On the day of the shoot, Spiers asked the crew about the spaceship.
"And I said, 'I just happen to have one!'" Tickner remembers, laughing. "I quite like that shot, actually. It’s dramatic, when the circle of light swings over the trees."
While not everyone shares Tickner’s dim view of working with Spiers—most people I spoke with for this piece characterize Spiers' style as hands-off and affable—McAleese confirmed some of Tickner's allegations, though he remained guarded. "It was a learning curve for Bob, who didn’t have a background in feature films per se. It was a discipline that was very different from him. But we managed to put a crew around him that supported him."
Directorial disputes aside, far before feminism was fashionable and before corporations had co-opted the activist aesthetic, Spice World taught young girls about friendship, solidarity, and girl power.
"It hits a generation of women who sort of love it," Kim remembers. "I’m really proud of it. When people ask me what I do, I lead with it now." Andrea Macarthur is used to the response she gets from young women upon telling them she edited the film. "Twenty years on, it’s very, very popular with girls of a certain age, who are probably in their early 30s now. When they find out I cut it, they’re like [she affects a high-pitched, excitable voice], Oh my god! I can’t believe it.’"
"Girl power was so huge," Mori remembers. "It was a whirlwind. I remember being at the premiere, and there’s just hundreds and thousands of screaming girls. I’d never experienced anything like it—the power and love that people had for them at the time."
And Spice World is a feminist film, literally decades before feminism became de rigeur. Endearingly, this is largely down to Kim's efforts. "I went on protest marches for women’s liberation," Kim says, "so I was always really aware of not talking down to them and belittling them in the script. I didn’t want to make jokes about them just being a pop group and all that."
"What’s that test they do for women, in films?" he suddenly asks me.
"The Bechdel test?" I respond.
"Yes, that’s it," he says. "It passed the Bechdel test on every scene, almost. They don’t talk about men at all."
Feminist significance aside, I love Spice World not in spite of its terrible outfits and even worse acting, but because of it. There’s an innocence about the film that cuts through the hyper-slick dream machine of today’s manufactured pop-stars—it’s impossible to imagine a One Direction biopic featuring an extended alien invasion sequence.
Paparazzi hanging out of the ass of pantomime cows and (allegedly) drunk director aside, Spice World is a triumph: a deliciously amateurish romp through an insane period of British cultural history, when the entire world worshipped five otherwise unremarkable English women. For women like me, who grew up watching and rewatching burnt out VHS tapes of the film, Spice World is our cultural lodestone—and we’ll never give up on the good times.
And if you’re reading this, Meat Loaf, hit me up. I still want to talk to you. #TweetLoaf.