Spice World is the most underrated nineties comedy

Twenty years later, the film is a cinematic masterpiece that celebrated a legendary girl group at the centre of a cultural zeitgeist.

January 22, 2018

When I was 12, my Mom finally took me to see Spice World. I put my hair in Emma Bunton-like pigtails, wore my finest plaid flares, and consulted my perfectly-curated collection of Spice Girls stickers and postcards in hopes of preparing myself for scenes I’d memorized through promo shots and TV trailers.

But no one can be prepared for that level of greatness.

In the 20 years since Spice World’s debut, we’ve largely grown out of the naval-gazing that comes with getting older and wiser. But as teens and twenty-somethings, we tend to diminish the things we once loved and dismiss what shaped us and made us who we are. In high school, I flinched every time somebody brought up the Spice Girls and my once-upon-a-time obsession, and learned to laugh at my (then) defunct devotion before anybody else could. To me, the Spice Girls were a source of embarrassment; proof that I used to be earnest and used to care about something unironically. They were why I hadn’t been popular and stood out for the wrong reasons. So Spice World was funny because it was “bad.” Sure, I owned it on DVD, but that was only because it was hilarious—and in all the wrong ways.

So clearly, I was an idiot. And so is anyone who fails to give Spice World the credit it deserves.

In the late Bob Spiers’ cinematic masterpiece, the Spice Girls navigate the realities of fame, of tabloid culture, and how difficult it is to strike a balance between the person you used to be and the adult you become. It tackles burn-out and strained relationships, and it centers around the women feeling like they’re forced to choose between their pregnant friend and making the biggest gig of their career on time. (Thankfully, the movie leaves us with the message that you can do both. As long as you’re willing to drive a double-decker tour bus through London like a Jason Statham movie character.) And, on top of all of it, it’s fucking funny.

In the same way The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night was used to mock the band’s larger-than-life reality and personas, Spice World beautifully embraced the ridiculousness that comes with fame. It created a tour bus tailored to their caricature-like Spice tastes, introduced an obsessive paparazzo doing the bidding of a Rupert Murdoch-like figure, and gave us Clifford, the group’s manager, who emotionally and mentally collapses on several occasions. Jokes were quick, tight, and, over-the-top (which should be expected, since Spiers directed Absolutely Fabulous and an instalment of Fawlty Towers), but gave us enough room to figure them out on our own. Spice World wasn’t a just-keeps-going comedy in the realm of Austin Powers or Night At the Roxbury or childish like Richie Rich. Instead, it gave kids and teens the opportunity to explore nuance and delivery on their own time, and to learn about the importance of delivery, character, and reaction. Even at its silliest (see: the gang’s interaction with aliens and their UFO), Spice World was still defined by its self-awareness. And while it didn’t aspire to be anything but a fun and funny movie, that didn’t mean its cast phoned it in. Quite the opposite: even Elton John gave it his all while rendezvousing with Ginger, Baby, Posh, Scary, and Sporty in a hallway. Everybody seemed happy to be there, and that’s what made it great.

Spice World wasn’t a just-keeps-going comedy in the realm of Austin Powers. Instead, it gave kids and teens the opportunity to explore nuance on their own time, and to learn about the importance of delivery, character, and reaction.

I was over a decade from high school when I realized just how valuable Spice World really was; when I began to see the way it influenced my grown-up tastes and how often I cited the things I saw and heard in it. By my twenties, I was no longer ashamed of my nineties-era Spice Girls shrine, or how I was convinced I looked like Baby when I wore my hair a certain way — by then, nostalgia was currency, and I learned that most of my friends had been just as obsessive. But in my thirties, I’ve come to realize the value of Spice World outside the Spice Girls universe; that in an era defined by snark and by cynicism, it was a movie that refused to participate and instead celebrated the sheer enjoyment of working with friends, being ridiculous, and laughing at yourself.

Plus, Alan Cumming as an overzealous documentary filmmaker is a gift so precious none of us deserved it.

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