April 4, 2014 Leave a comment
Upon my initial viewing of A Hard Day’s Night, it jumped into my top 100 and has stayed put. Likely underrated as a result of being a Beatles film, it still has a fairly strong reputation in the film community. However, over a decade prior to my first viewing of the 1964 film, I had seen and taken to Spice World, released in 1997. There are many reasons that AHDN has stronger cinematic credibility, not least in that Spice World owes virtually everything to it and would probably not exist in the form it is without it, but even watching them both again today, Spice World indisputably was my more enjoyable experience.
A Hard Day’s Night has many things going for it beside music from The Beatles. There is the look at the nature of fame at the time, especially the sensation that The Beatles would prove to be. This fame proves quite a hassle, in that the fab four are always on the run from adoring fans, but also are under the strict rules of manager Norm (Norman Rossington). You get each of the band members playing to certain conceptions about them. John is a ladies’ man, George is serious, and most importantly to the effectiveness of the story, Ringo is overlooked/underappreciated. The four have pretty strong comic timing, but Ringo is the standout with his ability to deliver some of the more emotional beats. For pure entertainment, the presence of Paul’s “very clean” grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is great.
But the thing that really makes AHDN stand up as a piece of cinema is the way it acts as an anti-establishment treatise at the rise of the counter-culture. A couple scenes in particular stand out in hitting home this idea, from an early scene where one gentleman of a certain class acts very entitled about conditions on the train, feeling superior to their youth and lack of refinement. The second one comes later when George ends up being talked to about marketing of some product and it exposes the way the corporate world views the youth and tries to control them. It is actually pulled off very subtly but packs a real punch.
Unlike AHDN, Spice World is not a film with a strong reputation, with only a 3.2 rating on imdb. The hate for Spice World simply blows my mind because I find it so lovable. Of course, my affection for the film isn’t hurt by Mel C (Sporty Spice), who was a key figure at this crucial point in my life, as a late teen. Hailing from The Beatles’ own Liverpool, she didn’t just win me over to the Spice Girls, she made me a Liverpool FC fan for life, which makes all the football references within the film that much more endearing now.
One of the places, surprisingly, that I think Spice World wins hands down is the music. I wouldn’t claim that the Spice Girls are a better group than The Beatles, that would be crazy talk. Still, Spice World incorporates the music a lot more smoothly, both in performance or as background. Perhaps it is the nature of their music, but it just meshes better with the various scenes. A Hard Day’s Night starts out strong with the titular track kicking off the film well and then the great train scene with I Should Have Known Better, but after that I never get a great sense of fit, and packing so many songs as performance at the end (with some repeats) feels slightly uninspired as a use of 1/6th of the film. I guess ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night is just not one of my favorite Beatles albums, so the quality of the music available for the film doesn’t measure up to the two Spice Girls albums their film pulls from.
Much of the story for Spice World is a direct take from AHDN. The band deals with the hazards of fame (tabloid backlash more than rabid fans, effectively updating the theme) and strict management (the great Richard E. Grant) that leaves them unable to really enjoy real life. Naturally they strain against this. Even more than The Beatles, they also struggle with having stereotypes of their characters (though this was a result of their own branding), never more than in a scene mirroring AHDN where they are interviewed by the press. All this is given some level of stakes in that they have a live event at the end that is put at risk by their rebellion. And both films ultimately are zany, full of the most random and often hilarious jokes. AHDN runs the risk of being a bit too unwieldy, it generally runs at such a pace that it can be hard to really settle. Spice World is much more consistent and steady with its pace and tone.
While AHDN is mostly populated by unknown actors (well, at least to me), Spice World is jam packed with cameos or other very knowing casting choices. You get Roger Moore in for a proper role, but make sure to have a key Bond joke. You get Meat Loaf in as the bus driver, but get a Meat Loaf joke in. That all these little bit parts are filled out with fairly talented people, aware of the silly thing that the film is going for, gives it a real strength.
However, probably the thing that most works for me with Spice World compared to A Hard Day’s Night is just the feminine aspect. Listening to their music again recently and watching this, I really do think about what a great presence the Spice Girls were. Their music was sexual, but compared to the sexuality on display in the pop music of the 00s up to today, of Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, it feels less commercial and more authentic. These are adult women who are confident and empowered to enjoy their sexuality, and when it comes to sex, they make sure to say “put it on, put it on”…I can respect a sexy song about safe, consensual sex. But the very best feminine touch is the storyline with their friend Nicola (Naoko Mori), due to give birth. Not only does it emphasize the pull fame has against being able to remain close with friends, it puts a stark contrast about how superficial the trappings of fame can seem. This may not have the political power of early stirrings of the counter-culture, but it is still a strong thematic heart to an otherwise goofy film. Watching this moment I just don’t see how so many people come out of this film hating it.
I guess it comes down to what one’s top-100 is really meant to be. Does the fact that A Hard Day’s Night paved the way, that it is generally more well regarded, that it has more overtly important thematic content make it worthier than a film I see a depth in of its own and enjoy vastly more. Is the low regard for Spice World the main thing that keeps me from giving it the same billing (though I do include it in the Bondo Collection). I’m not sure, and I can’t say if this will change. What I can say is that both are extremely enjoyable and surprisingly affecting films and they make a great double feature.