Last Year's Models

IN THE MAD scramble for seats at the advance screening of Spice World, white men in black leather were seen to muscle aside little girls in leopard skin and Adidas. This scene proved a fitting prelude to the film itself, which follows the Spice Girls as they are hounded by an assortment of men, including their harried manager (Richard E. Grant), a clueless documentary-maker (Alan Cumming), a pair of movie producers (George Wendt and Mark McKinney), and two tabloid tormentors (Barry Humphries and Richard O'Brien). The casting follows suit, with cameos by Elton John, Meat Loaf, and Squeeze's Jools Holland, all of whom are shown elbowing in on the Girls' fame. (Meanwhile, girl celebs are conspicuously absent.) In his brief role as a bartender, even Elvis Costello has cashed in on this year's models. Or is that last year's?

Call it Girl $ Power--and the suits want in, too. Clearly, Forbes was talking net and not fishnet when, ogling the Girls' $47 million booty last year, it advised readers how to sell "attitude" to 5-year-old girls. There's also a good number of "feminists" selling the girls-on-top message. But while Spice World might be based on the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night (1964), you can be sure the Girls won't be singing "I don't care too much for money" anytime soon. If A Hard Day's Night satirized professional trendsetters and manipulative ad execs (recall George's refusal to endorse "grotty" menswear), the advertising captains of consciousness aren't among the men parodied in Spice World.

What the movie does mock is the Spice Girls' wholesale manufacture. When the documentary-maker says he wants to capture "the essence" of the Girls, "to crash through the surface façade," the cameraman drolly remarks, "I think I need a longer lens"--the point being that it's all façade. Further proof comes at a fashion shoot-cum-drag show where the Girls impersonate each other and such icons as Bowie, Marley, Wonder Woman, and Olivia Newton-John, while a dance instructor/drill sergeant named "Mr. Step" (Michael Barrymore) offers hilarious lessons in spectacle-making ("Don't give me any of that Julie Andrews hilltop clap trap!"). No wonder the film's director, Bob Spiers, is a veteran of Absolutely Fabulous: Like that televised camp fest, Spice World revels in the tawdry trappings of excessive wealth and femininity. When the movie loses this sensibility, though, the results are deadly. In a depressing turn for the worse, the fabricated five go essentialist on us.

Led to believe that it's clothes that make the woman, we suddenly discover midway through the movie that what actually holds girls together are things like squatting to pee and clogging toilets with sanitary products. A cloying flashback to the Girls' salad days contrives an "authentic" past, while an annoyingly sentimental subplot fabricates sisterly solidarity in the service of a pregnant friend (Naoko Mori). Warning: The Spice Girls brake for babies and nuns.

Perhaps this respectable paean to motherhood isn't so surprising in light of critics' tendency to hurl peppy epithets and sly innuendos at the Girls, calling them pop tarts, trollops, strumpets, sluts, "seasoned professionals," and "cartoon call girls." Even the New York Times' Janet Maslin--who apparently prefers Laura Ashley and sensible shoes--called Ginger "Streetwalker Spice." So much for Girl Power. Still, as the Girls themselves frequently pair "feminism" with "blah blah blah," their feminist pose seems no less dubious than their alleged appeal to adolescent girls. (Should we blame their male director?) A Hard Day's Night featured countless close-ups of girls getting all wet and googly over the Fab Four, but the female fans in Spice World are familiarly elbowed aside by stars, promoters, and even the Girls. Either security has perfected crowd control since Beatlemania (thanks to Thatcher, perhaps?) or these fans suffer from a decided lack of enthusiasm. Or maybe it's too chastening and unglamorous to picture scenes from the real Spice world--like those in which acquisitive mothers shove their daughters to the front of the Spice counter.

A hard day's night, indeed. Back in '64, director Richard Lester called his Beatles movie a "chronicle of confidence" and described the band as the optimistic antidote to the "semi-soured cynical defeatism of the angry young man syndrome." Likewise, the Spice Girls style themselves as the "cheeky" '90s alternatives to the sour feminists of yesteryear. This new and improved Girl Power certainly has its charms, but the real message of Spice World is that angry young women don't sell as well.

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