Hit or miss... it's a hard day's Spice

The world trembles with anticipation to see whether `Spiceworld - The Movie' is, as has been suggested, the natural heiress to `A Hard Day's Night' or just one more embarrassment in the tradition of such long-forgotten stinkers as `Gonks Go Beat' and `Live It Up'. Andy Gill considers the scary challenge facing Ginger and Co.

The odds, frankly, are against the Spice Girls. Whatever indignities say, Elvis, may have been subjected to in his lamentable screen career, they are as nothing compared to the parochial humiliations of the typical British pop movie. For one thing, there is only one plot to British pop movies, which runs as follows: (1) The kids just want to have fun. (2) But those businessmen can be bastards.

This plot synopsis holds true for films as apparently disparate as Expresso Bongo (1959), Slade In Flame (1974) and The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1980), largely because the traditional British pop movie is essentially about the pop business, be it the chirpy music-hall variety of the late Fifties, or the more blatantly cynical exploitation depicted in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle.

In the beginning, this was based on truth: the pop business of the early rock 'n' roll years was almost exclusively based on managerial Svengalis like Larry Parnes and their stables of fancifully named young stars like Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Duffy Power and Marty Wilde. Within a moribund entertainment industry striving to come to terms with the new rock 'n' roll music - which it tried to revile as a fad - there was an implicit assumption that rebellious young rockers harboured secret urges to "mature" into all-round family entertainers like Tommy Steele, the first English rocker. The Tommy Steele Story, made within a year of his first hit, was couched in the cosy terms of backstage musicals rather than the rending of social fabrics, while the contemporaneous (and vastly superior) Expresso Bongo offers an unwittingly ironic hostage to fortune when the 19-year- old Bongo Herbert, in the person of Cliff Richard, asks his manager Laurence Harvey what he'll be able to do when he's 20, because, of course, he can't keep on with this teenage stuff forever, can he?

Such, perhaps, are the kinds of thoughts passing through the Spice Girls' heads as they prepare for their Christmas publicity blitz.

Already perched perilously upon the cusp of the passe, they each must surely be contemplating solo careers, if only to stave off the humiliation of not being recognised in a "Spot the former Spice Girl" segment of some future edition of Never Mind The Buzzcocks. High among their options, presumably, will be the notion of extending their relationship(s) with the silver screen.

After all, how hard can it be? A quick list of singers who have subsequently acted in movies would include, alongside the obvious multi-media superstars (Sinatra, Presley, Madonna) such diverse talents as Damon Albarn (blown away in Face), Sting (daft in Dune), Debbie Harry (bee-hiving herself in Hairspray), Marky Mark Wahlberg (upstanding as porno star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights), and Courtney Love (who excelled in The People Vs Larry Flynt playing Flynt's junkie stripper wife - admittedly, not that great a stretch for her). Why, even Shaun Ryder, of all people, has blagged a serious acting role. So why not The Spice Girls? Before they plunge headlong into luvvie-land, a note of caution: it's a fact that since Crosby and Sinatra, most popular singers who have turned their hand to acting have fallen flat on their face.

It's a simple case of confused capabilities: singers tend to think that because they have invented a stage persona, they can act. But acting is essentially a matter of emotional and physical malleability, of being able to readily abandon or alter characteristics to effect a more convincing transformation; pop stagecraft, by contrast, is more concerned with sustaining and strengthening the one image for an entire - usually, thankfully, brief - career. They are hardly likely, therefore, to discard their own "character" for the uncertainties of another role.

That's why the pop star usually plays, er, the pop star. The bigger the star, the more immutable the persona: one thinks of Prince's ridiculous movies, and particularly of Bob Dylan's screen appearances. No performer has been as trapped by his own charisma as Dylan: in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, he doesn't even get a specific name for his character - he's just "Alias", since everyone can see that really, he's just Dylan.

He was rather more convincing as an ageing rock star in Hearts Of Fire - but even then, it was a sort of enigmatic, reclusive, world-weary rock star. It can't have involved too many months of preparation.

Consequently, directors often prefer to use pop performers as thinly veiled versions of themselves, rather than court disaster by casting against type. Nicolas Roeg, for instance, drew a striking performance from Mick Jagger in Performance by casting him as Mick, and a

rather less convincing, but suitably alienated, performance from David Bowie playing an alien-turned-superstar in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Indeed, so adept was Roeg's casting of singers that eyebrows were raised when he had angelic-voiced Art Garfunkel play a creepy necrophiliac in Bad Timing.

The other safe-ish alternative is to cast the pop star as a kind of living cartoon - a static, iconic presence, rather than a living, breathing character required to convey emotional and intellectual changes with conviction. Such, presumably, is the rationale behind the film careers of such noted thespians as Phil Collins, Ice-T, and angry grunge raconteur Henry Rollins - the latter pair both contributing to the ludicrous laugh- in that was Johnny Mnemonic - while bad-taste movie king John Waters has successfully used the likes of Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry in this way in films like Hairspray and Cry Baby. Since the Spice Girls are already effectively little more than cartoon characters, with their own pseudonyms, their own catchphrase ("Cowabunga!" - sorry, "Girl Power!") and their own merchandise, perhaps this is the route they should be thinking of following in their future solo careers.

To give them their due, the girls have already managed to short-circuit the second stage of the classic British pop-movie plot, by firing their manager before the film even opens. It's a start, I suppose.

TEN HITS

Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come

Levon Helm in Coalminer's Daughter

Courtney Love in The People Vs. Larry Flynt

Tupac Shakur in Gridlocked

Ice Cube in Boyz N The Hood

Kris Kristofferson in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Mick Jagger in Performance

Robbie Robertson in The Crossing Guard

Harry Connick Jr in Copycat

Debbie Harry in Hairspray

Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing

TEN MISSES

Madonna in Body Of Evidence

Prince in Under The Cherry Moon

Grace Jones in Boomerang

Ice-T in Tank Girl

Phil Collins in Buster

Henry Rollins in Johnny Mnemonic

David Bowie in The Hunger

Sting in Dune

Toyah in Jubilee

Elvis Presley in virtually anything

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