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The Life of Spice

David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

Now they know how many Spice Girls fans it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

Around 4,500, it would seem, most of them age 11 or 12, with girls heavily outnumbering boys. Most are British, but some have come from as far afield as Germany, Spain, even Japan--just for the privilege of sitting in the audience in this magnificent, multitiered Victorian-era concert hall, while the Spice Girls perform two new songs onstage. Footage of their performance will be included in their film debut, “Spiceworld: The Movie.”

Because filming each song requires extra takes with long gaps in between, the fans must sit for more than four hours until shooting is complete.

Are they fidgeting? Are they unhappy? Are they bored? They are not. Ecstatic is more like it. Such is the allure of the Spice Girls, the five-girl British group that has emerged from complete obscurity to become the world’s best-selling music act this year. Their hits are bright, danceable, lightweight pop, undemanding but infectious, and fortified by the group members’ personalities; effervescent and feisty, they preach a nebulous message of female self-assertiveness they call “girl power.”

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Their debut album, “Spice,” has sold more than 17 million copies worldwide, more than a quarter of them in the U.S. It reached No. 1 on the U.S. charts--a first for a British debut album. Initial sales of their second album, “Spiceworld,” released last month, have been relatively sluggish--though music industry experts here expect it to gain sales momentum during the holidays.

The Spice Girls are hugely popular throughout Europe and South America too, but their fame has spread farther; this reporter entered a record shop in Bombay, India, earlier this year, only to hear “Wannabe,” the Spice Girls’ first hit single, blaring from the sound system.

But Britain is unquestionably the epicenter of Spice Girls mania; it is hard to convey to people living in other countries the extent to which these five young women, ages 21 to 25, have grabbed the popular imagination. For a start, their first five singles have all reached the No. 1 slot in the British charts. Not even the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or more recently Oasis could match that.

Everyone in Britain seems to know not just their names but their nicknames--Sporty Spice, Ginger Spice, Posh Spice, Baby Spice and Scary Spice--originally given them by a pop magazine. Not only that, but many British people, even those of mature years, have an opinion about which Spice Girl they prefer. (Posh Spice is favored by most lawmakers in Britain’s Parliament, a survey revealed.) And when the Spice Girls visited South Africa in November, both Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela contrived to appear in public with them for a photo call; both men received a kiss on the cheek from the Girls for their devotion.

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Despite a minor backlash that speculated about the Girls’ ability to perform live and whether they play any part in composing their songs (they are listed as co-writers), they have gone from strength to strength. Even their minor exploits are regularly reported in the tabloid press--it was front-page news when Emma Bunton (Baby Spice) fell off her high heels recently and twisted an ankle.

But even sober broadsheet newspapers get in on the Spice Girls’ act. When Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) proclaimed last year that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “was the first Spice Girl,” it was as if she had uttered a momentous philosophical truth.

Acres of comment from usually serious political observers were published, much of it along the lines that if Thatcher was a role model to Halliwell’s generation, then maybe the conservative government, which Thatcher formerly led, was not as unpopular as was generally believed. But then two other Spice Girls, Melanie Brown (Scary Spice) and Melanie Chisholm (Sporty Spice), announced that they had always been Labor Party supporters. And of course, the Labor Party romped to a crushing victory in May’s general election.

While the tabloids have devoted themselves to breathless reporting of the romance between Victoria Adams (Posh Spice) and David Beckham, one of England’s brightest young soccer stars, the upscale sector of the British press has pondered long and hard over the cultural significance of Halliwell’s favorite mini-dress, in the design of Britain’s Union Jack flag. Did it betoken a new optimism about Britain? Was the country feeling good about itself? What did it all mean?

Last month marked the most momentous Spice Girls story to date: The group summarily fired its manager, 36-year-old Simon Fuller, who, wouldn’t you know, was invariably nicknamed “Svengali Spice” by the tabloids. Fuller had brought the Girls to mega-stardom, marketed them cunningly but operated a strict regime and gave them little time off.

Fuller, who also manages singer Annie Lennox, reportedly took 20% of the group’s earnings--that is to say, more than any individual group member. And he was reportedly involved romantically with Bunton, a fact said to disturb the equilibrium within the group.

Halliwell, according to press reports, led the revolt and personally phoned Fuller while he was recuperating from a back operation and dismissed him. (Bunton, given an ultimatum by the others, chose Girl Power over Fuller). Estimates of Fuller’s settlement range from $17 million to $25 million. All this was more grist for media speculation. Were the Spice Girls starting to believe their own publicity? Had they gotten too big for their platform-heeled boots? Or was Fuller’s overthrow the ultimate signifier of, yes, Girl Power?

The kids in the Albert Hall, one surmises, are not looking for cultural significance in the day’s events. They’re content just to be under the same roof as the Spice Girls. One 200-strong section of the crowd, specifically chosen as extras, leap from their seats on cue as the Girls embark on a new song, “Spice Up Your Life,” earmarked as the first single from the “Spiceworld” album. They dance and shout, and many of them wave British flags; in fact, there are more Union Jacks in the hall than you’d expect to see if Queen Elizabeth were visiting.

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“Spiceworld: The Movie” (released by PolyGram in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and major European territories and by Columbia in the U.S.), seems a logical step for the Girls after their string of hit records, just as “A Hard Day’s Night” was for the Beatles in 1964 after their early successes.

But “Spiceworld: The Movie” (budgeted at just under 5 million pounds, or $8.5 million) was conceived before the group had achieved any public recognition or record sales. It was all part of a master plan on the part of ex-manager Fuller.

One of the film’s producers, Barnaby Thompson, said: “There was a phone call from Simon last year, just around the time ‘Wannabe’ reached No. 1 in the charts.

“We met the Girls, and it was immediately apparent they were more than just a band. They had clearly different personalities that hit you when you met them. They’re a force of nature. So it seemed like a glorious opportunity to do a certain kind of film which no longer gets made very often--a throwback to the 1960s, when films like this were made all the time.”

Just as “A Hard Day’s Night” chronicled a day in the Beatles’ hectic life as archetypal British pop stars, so “Spiceworld: The Movie” spans a week in the Spice Girls’ life, culminating in their first live gig at the Albert Hall--the sequence being filmed on this particular day. Thompson, who has a production company, Fragile Films, with his partner Uri Fruchtmann, added: “The idea was to construct [a film] that related to their lives. It’s based on their experiences. It’s not docudrama, but it comes from true stories heightened for comedic or dramatic ends. Essentially the Girls play themselves surrounded by fictional characters.”

Along with Fuller, the Spice Girls compiled a wish list of British talent they wanted in the film. So Richard E. Grant (“The Player,” “Withnail & I”) plays Clifford, their neurotic road manager; Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (from TV’s “Jeeves and Wooster”) have cameos, with Fry playing a judge; Richard Briers (Polonius in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”) plays an outraged bishop, while British heavyweight boxing champ Frank Bruno is the girls’ tour bus driver. Roger Moore, who was 007 in several James Bond films, is the Spice Girls’ Svengali-like manager, known simply as the Chief--a character whose presence in this story is ironic, given last month’s turbulent events.

Directing “Spiceworld: The Movie” is Bob Spiers, best known for directing the cult TV comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous.” The screenwriter is Fuller’s older brother Kim, who has worked in America on Tracey Ullman’s recent comedy series for HBO and has also written the British sci-fi comedy series “Red Dwarf.”

“We’ve got a great cast together,” Thompson said. “All the actors we approached were really up for it, though oddly enough some agents were quite snooty--they weren’t sure they wanted their clients to be doing a Spice Girls movie. But in the 1960s we made films in Britain that were big, popular, commercial and good. So hopefully we’ll be able to get back to doing a movie for a sense of fun.”

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That sense of fun is in evidence on the Albert Hall stage; the young audience is transfixed by the exotic clothes worn by each Spice Girl. Emma’s silver mini-dress with matching silver boots contrasts with Victoria’s leopard-skin dress slit almost to the waist; she teeters around in impossibly high heels. Geri looks like a lurid Hugh Hefner fantasy in a scarlet teddy, a glittery red bunny tail and red shoes with platform heels. Mel B., the scary one, wears a floor-length coat wide open, revealing silver hot pants and thigh boots beneath; her plaited hair is worn atop her head, resembling two horns. Mel C., befitting her sporty image, is in a yellow singlet, running shoes and baggy khaki camouflage pants.

It would be reasonable for the Spice Girls to retire to a dressing room between takes. Instead, creditably, they work the room and allay any boredom that might set in; they talk to the fans, make corny jokes, sing little improvised songs and generally keep the fans entertained.

“They enjoy themselves, but they are the most incredibly hard-working people you’ve ever come across,” said Gerard Tyrrell, Fuller’s lawyer and on this day still in the Spice Girls’ employ. “That in itself sets them apart from other groups you meet. They are so focused.”

It transpires that the Spice Girls have a mobile recording studio with them on set, and when they are not fully involved with a scene for a couple of hours, they rehearse and record songs for their next album.

Despite this sense of fun, then, there is clearly an intricately conceived career plan at work. Even so, as Tyrrell admitted, not everything goes according to plan.

“The idea was to break home territory, Britain, first and not even think about Europe,” he said. “The physical difficulties of traveling constantly around Europe are enormous. The intention was to set our sights on the U.S. when we had time to concentrate on it properly. But it hasn’t worked out that way.”

So it was that the Spice Girls shot a movie before embarking on their first live tour. But that will happen in 1998. The more pressing problem: What kind of movie should it be? Disney was interested in the Spice Girls early on and had already sent them a script to consider.

“But it was awful,” Thompson said. “It was very much written in California rather than in Britain. There was a glossary explaining typical British phrases. It explained the difference between football and soccer. It told the audience that Covent Garden was a trendy area of London.” He shuddered slightly at the recollection. “It just didn’t capture the spirit of what the Spice Girls are about.”

Enter Kim Fuller, who through brother Simon had known the five for two years before he started on his script.

“I felt they had a strong identity as individuals, and you could use those five separate people to create the drama,” he said. “But in parallel with my writing the script, the Girls just got bigger. The story started becoming true. So then the problem was how do you keep up with the reality? A story that went ‘We’re not famous, now we’re famous’ would have been overtaken by the time the film opens.”

So Fuller condensed his script into a week, starting with the Spice Girls on the long-running BBC TV music show “Top of the Pops” and culminating in their first major live concert at the Albert Hall. “I wanted to convey the idea of the global nature of this phenomenon,” Fuller said. “A sense of these five girls in their little world, and out of that springs this global machine.”

In between the two gigs, the Girls cross swords with Richard E. Grant’s character, Clifford, who opposes their requests for time off. “You don’t have lives,” he tells them at one point, “you have a schedule.” (Does life imitate art, or what?)

The Girls are torn between work commitments and visiting a friend who has just had a baby, to whom they are all godmothers. A subplot involves Clifford being the secret object of desire for Deborah, the Girls’ personal assistant, who tries (often in vain) to keep them in line. She is played by Claire Rushbrook, who was Brenda Blethyn’s road-sweeper daughter in “Secrets & Lies.”

Fuller’s thoughts about the film remain unknown; he is not breaking his rule of avoiding the media today. But brother Kim offers some background about him; they grew up in the English south coast port of Hastings.

“Simon’s nine years younger than me, and he’s always been very focused about his life,” Kim said. “He would organize discos, bring bands down to Hastings from London who he thought would be successful. There was one band called Tonight who were going to be the next big thing. Nothing like the Spice Girls, of course.”

Fuller’s iron regime over the group extended to members of the media who wish to interview his protegees. The Spice Girls cannot be questioned separately--only together. Given their exuberant personalities and their habit of finishing one another’s sentences, this can be a daunting prospect; but Fuller declined a request from The Times to vary his policy. So it was that backstage in their dressing room the Girls all crowded on to a small sofa to place themselves as near as possible to a reporter’s microphone:

Question: What’s the experience of filming been like?

Geri: It’s been nice for us because it’s like entering a different world. It’s like escapism. Every day’s a new routine. As for the acting part, we’ve had a real laugh. It’s like a fantasy, you go into these new, different environments; that’s been really good fun for us.

Emma: We’ve been planning a film for three years. We’ve always wanted to do different things. We’ve always said we’re more than a band, we want to try everything.

Question: Have you acted before?

Geri: Yes, a few of us, because we’ve been to colleges where they do dance, drama and music. We’ve always been in that environment and done little bits of TV work, and even when we used to live together in Maidenhead [a town 30 miles west of London] we used to entertain each other by doing . . .

Emma: . . . improvisations and things.

Question: So how much input have any of you had into the film?

Mel B.: We’ve known this writer guy for three or four years . . .

Emma: . . . we’ve traveled abroad a lot and he’s been with us . . .

Mel C.: . . . he’s a really good friend of ours.

Mel B.: As for the script, the way we’re saying things is the way we really say things. Either words and lines were changed or the scenes are improvised and we’ve put up an idea and said, “Right, this is what we want to happen.” We sit down and talk about it, so it’s more of a group thing. That’s how we work in general, from our music to our clothes to everything we do.

Geri: But the actual story lines are things that have actually happened. Not actual fact but, you know, exaggeration. The comedy-fantasy element is from us.

Emma: With casting we wanted people we could work well with.

Question: Who did you ask for?

Mel B.: We had a big list. Ummm, Marlon Brando . . .

Victoria: It wasn’t a case of, they’re famous, so put them in the film. There were a lot of famous people who wanted to be in the film. But they weren’t right for a particular part.

Question: How much is the story of the film like your lives?

Mel B.: It’s a parody.

Question: Your lives at the moment must feel like being in a film.

Geri: It certainly is a bit hectic.

Emma: The film’s a bit of a piss-take of ourselves. We like to think it’s cheeky.

Mel B.: We’re reflecting what it’s like at the eye of the tornado. There’s personal stuff between the five of us, there’s drama.

Question: You have this film, a world tour next year. Are you planning any projects as individuals?

Mel B.: Maybe. But we have this film to concentrate on now. At the moment we live month by month.

Geri: Day by day.

Emma: At the end of the day we’re friends and we’ll always support each other. If Geri, say, wants to do something on her own, we’ll be right behind her.

Mel B.: That’s what girl power’s all about, right? It’s about solidarity and being sisters together . . .

Emma: . . . we always say we wouldn’t be here without each other.

Question: In this scene you’re shooting today, you’re performing at your first live concert. Is singing live a big issue for all of you?

Geri: No. In a way we’ve rubbed the dirt in people’s faces, because there were so many negative comments. It’s no big deal; we just want to find the right time and the right place to do it. If we’re going to sing live, we’re going to do it properly.

Emma: We used to worry about it, but now we just think as long as we’re happy, we’ll just let people decide for themselves.

Geri: The criticism goes over our heads now. We just go out and enjoy ourselves.

Mel C.: But singing is all about personal taste. I don’t really care if people think I can’t sing. I love and enjoy it so much and some people enjoy me doing it. So the rest can go and screw themselves. [Laughter]

They emerge as likable, brash, spirited young women--and no one on set has a bad word to say about them.

“They can be exhausting company, because they’re so enthusiastic,” said Claire Rushbrook. “But they definitely seem to be good friends and a good working team. They see all this for what it is, nothing more and nothing less. They’ve got things in context. They’re cool.”

But maybe their most eloquent supporter on the set is Grant, who could be seen at the rear of the stage during the Spice Girls’ songs, jigging away with abandon in a loud purple suit.

“What I expected before I met them was Diana Ross and the Supremes,” Grant said. “I thought there’d be one obvious leader. But they’re all individuals in their own right. There doesn’t seem to be one who dominates everyone else. That gives them great strength, I think.

“I’ve also been surprised by how amenable they’ve been to working in a completely different medium. Even allowing for pop videos, there’s nothing that prepares you for the ‘hurry up and wait’ syndrome of filmmaking.

“And they work so hard. I asked Victoria how much time off she’d be having after the film wrapped, and she said, very wide-eyed: ‘Four days.’ And I’m taking five weeks!”

Grant, who has become one of Britain’s most in-demand film actors, said he took the role alongside the Spice Girls for “purely hedonistic” reasons: “I wanted to do a film for pure fun, rather than giving academy members sleepless nights about who they should honor for acting achievement. I can’t think of any British flick since the Beatles films that have been made purely to give people pleasure. There’s also the fact that my 8-year-old daughter has a shrine to the Spice Girls at home. She worships them.”

After about 3 1/2 hours, director Spiers finally called a halt to filming. With eight cameras deployed around the Albert Hall, an estimated $100,000 of film stock was due to be delivered from the day’s shooting. But the day’s entertainment was not quite through. As a thank-you gesture to their fans for staying patient through the rigors of filming, the Spice Girls bounced back onstage and sang each of their recognized hits, ending up inevitably with “Wannabe.” Their young fans were delirious; once again, it was a gesture the Girls did not need to make.

“That’s what they’re like,” Grant said. “I’ve never seen them have an argument in nine weeks, and considering they’re together as much as they are, it would be obvious if their [friendship] was a false setup. I’ve seen them when they arrive on set and I’ve seen them when they leave at 9 p.m., so you get a pretty good idea.

“I asked Geri, ‘Don’t you feel as if your lives are just exploding?’ And she said, ‘No, our lives are just what we’re doing now. We’re living in the minute.’ Which is as sane a response as I can imagine.

“If they can convey all that for the entire movie, I don’t see how this can fail.”


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