A bright and breezy movie that’s as timely but evanescent as the Cool Britannia culture it celebrates, “Spice World” will delight the Fab Five’s pre-pubescent fans, recall fond memories of the ’60s to those who actually lived through them, and be forgotten within six months. More Austin Powers-like retro than the genuinely groundbreaking “A Hard Day’s Night” it apes, pic momentarily sags around the halfway mark but manages to paper over its weak script with enough decibels and optimistic energy to light up a city. Result should mop up juicy, though not stratospheric, business in fast playoff. Following its solo world preem in London on Dec. 15, the megahyped movie will be released Dec. 26 in the U.K. in a massive 560 prints and goes out Stateside through Sony Jan. 23.
Picture is not so much a story as a series of musical opportunities dotted with celeb cameos, following the Spices through five days leading up to their first live gig in London’s Royal Albert Hall. En route, the movie takes potshots at the tabloid press, the capital’s glitterati and the media in general, as well as stirring in beaucoup filmic refs to amuse oldsters while the young’uns are transfixed by the girls and their music.
Though some of the cameos and in-jokes won’t mean much outside the U.K., the film’s defiantly British tone is cleverly enough packaged to appeal offshore as a general celebration of a culture that’s back off its knees. This is ’90s theme-park New Britain, with the Union Jack-painted Spicebus constantly passing London landmarks and the gals themselves a walking gallery of regional, blue-collar Blighty on the Move.
After a slick, 007-like main title introing the girls (to the sounds of “Too Much”), we meet their bossy manager, Clifford (Richard E. Grant), his quiet assistant (Claire Rushbrook from “Secrets & Lies”), their driver (Meatloaf) and a pretentious, accident-prone filmmaker (Alan Cumming) trying to make a docu showing the “real” Spice Girls. Clifford reports by phone to the mysterious Chief (Roger Moore), a smoothie stroking a white cat who talks purely in Delphic riddles (“The drummer who is without sticks has no backbeat,” etc.).
Traveling in a romper-room bus that’s as cavernous as Dr. Who’s phone booth, the girls careen from press conferences and photo ops, via a quick concert in Milan, to an encounter with aliens and a quick boot-camp training session in the country. Always on their trail is a photojournalist (Richard O’Brien), hired by sleazoid Australian newspaper proprietor Kevin McMaxford (Barry Humphries), who’s determined to bring the Spices down.
Meanwhile, Clifford takes meetings with an American film producer (George Wendt) who proposes ludicrous scenarios that are briefly visualized onscreen. A pre-finale development has the quintet rebelling against Clifford’s Draconian rule, going AWOL and helping their pregnant best friend, Nicola (Naoki Mori), give birth. No prizes for guessing the sex of the sprig.
The question of whether the Spices can act — they can’t, but neither could the Beatles — is largely irrelevant: The movie essentially mirrors the non-diva, down-to-earth personalities on which their act is based, and which include a sizable amount of self-parody. As well as being eerily prophetic of real-life events (tensions with their manager, pic’s exec producer Simon Fuller, leading to his recent firing), the film also nakedly confronts issues like the British tabs’ love-hate relationship, whether the girls can really sing outside a studio and if they’re already past their sell-by date. It’s a clever spin that largely invalidates any critical carps.
Though in live appearances Geri (Ginger) and Mel B (Scary) have shown the most personality, in the film none is allowed to dominate, though the sultry Victoria (Posh), constantly griping about her wardrobe, gets the best of a so-so bunch of quips. Moore’s Blofeld-like Chief is the classiest of the cameos. Grant, in usual manic mode, is much less funny than he should have been, and as the non-Spice with the biggest screen time is the main casualty of dialogue that’s not sharp enough by half. Cameos by a host of names, as themselves or in character, last from a few seconds (Bob Hoskins) to mini-turns (Stephen Fry as a malicious judge).
Technically, the movie (shot totally in the U.K. in 43 days last summer) is surprisingly modest and low-tech, eschewing widescreen and fancy musicvid visuals. Like the film as a whole, the music segs are simply pacily cut — a revolutionary enough decision in today’s market and one that helps to make the movie more than just an extended musicvideo. Direction by TV vet Bob Spiers (“Fawlty Towers,” “Absolutely Fabulous”) is unfussy and to the point. Clive Tickner’s lensing is bright but with no special gloss, and Kate Carin’s costumes are always eye-filling and unashamedly sexy. Dialogue by the girls in the heavily post-synched movie is sometimes indistinct, and the 17 musical numbers are given an in-your-face, rather than a subtler, more separated stereo dub.
For the record, the title on the actual movie is “Spice World,” though in print ads the pic is billed as “Spiceworld the Movie.”