Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 19, 2008)
In late 2007, the Spice Girls launched an improbable reunion that produced much greater success than most would’ve imagined. It didn’t last long, but for those of us with an affection for all things Spice, the reunion was a blast. For a look at the group’s earliest days, we head to Raw Spice, a documentary about the Spice Girls’ formation.
The program takes us to 1994 and introduces us to pop manager Chris Herbert. With the support of his father Bob and fellow band manager Chick Murphy, Chris decides to form an all-girl group to compete with the boy bands big at the time. He runs a newspaper ad and stages auditions to find girls to perform in this singing group.
Thousands show up for this, but only five make the cut. Or six, actually, as original Spice Michelle Stephenson earns a spot in the band but various issues quickly lead to her replacement with Emma Bunton. From there the Spices go through vocal and dance training as well as other aspects of their development. We see the personalities interact and move things along to eventually become what we now know as the Spice Girls.
Here’s what Raw isn’t: a full history of the Spice Girls. It provides a rather one-sided take on things since none of the Girls themselves show up to chat. Yes, we see a lot of them in the program, but it’s all via 1994 footage. The modern commentary – circa 2001, that is - comes from Chris Herbert, original Spice Girl Michelle Stephenson, voice coach Pepi Lemer, Top of the Pops producer (1994-1997) Ric Blaxill, “Eternal” singers Kelle Bryan and Louise, BMG music publisher (1992-1995) Marc Fox, songwriters Erwin Keiles and John Thirkell and Geri Halliwell’s agents (1994) John Sachs and Anthony Blackburn.
I definitely would’ve liked new remarks from the actual Spices and would love to see a documentary about the band that doesn’t end with the group on the cusp of stardom. That said, Raw boasts a lot to make it appeal to Spice fanatics like myself. I knew a bit about their early history, though most of that came from official Spice sources like an authorized book, so it was nice to hear from different sides.
Actually, even though Raw lacks Spice authorization, it doesn’t show us a seedy underbelly or anything controversial. I was somewhat surprised to see how well this show’s view of early Spice history matched with the thoughts thrown out in the official Spice books. I’d always assumed that the latter gave us a sanitized take on things, and that’s true to a degree. However, Raw demonstrates the accuracy of the official Spice viewpoints and lets us see a good picture of their early days.
It’s amusing to watch them in the early stages, partially because it shows how much of the “Spice Personalities” came from reality. Sure, they would play up their tendencies in later years as Scary, Sporty, etc., but you know what? Those traits appear here in full force, well before the Girls posed for the press.
Which actually makes me adore the Spice Girls even more. They’ve always been accused of being a prefab pop conglomeration instead of a “real” group, but I don’t accept that. Sure, they came together as part of a casting cattle call, but that doesn't make the women themselves fake or contrived. No behind the scenes mastermind handed out “roles” for the Girls to play; they played up their personalities in the future, but those behaviors did come from reality.
While the modern interviews offer perspective, the 1994 video footage creates the primary aspect of interest for fans. No, you won’t hear the genesis of hit songs like “Wannabe”, as the music heard here predates the creation of the tunes we’d later associate with the Girls. We do hear snatches of early songs, but none of these would ever see the light of day on official Spice releases, and that’s probably a good thing; they all sound like very generic 1990s pop.
Love or hate the Spice Girls, but I don’t think anyone could ever accuse them of being “generic”. Indeed, no other band of their ilk showed such distinct personalities. Other than their diehard fans, who knows the difference between the guys in any of the big boy bands? (Yeah, everyone know who Justin Timberlake is, but that’s due to post-‘N Sync success; those guys were much more interchangeable in their time.)
Raw gives us access to their early development, and those “fly on the wall” glimpses are quite delightful. They’re not sanitized, so while we see some pretty ordinary material, we also witness fights and whatnot. It’s great to see how much control the Girls took even in the early stage, especially since so many feel they were nothing more than pop puppets. They really weren’t; they played an active role in their work, and we can get a hint of that even in their formative days.
I was most interested to see how Raw would handle the Girls’ split with their original managers. That’s always seemed like the area with the most potential to appear cold and mercenary on the part of the Spices. As I recall, the official version says that the Girls wanted to take things to a level they didn’t think their original managers could reach so they split off and found more active management.
And that’s basically what Raw tells us, though not in a critical way. Indeed, the show reveals to us that the managers never had the Girls sign contracts because they wanted the Spices to stay on edge. The managers felt that if the Girls weren’t under contract, they could replace them at will and keep them on edge.
Oops! That manipulation backfired since it left the Girls free to strike out on their own. That worked out great for the Spices but not so much for the Herberts and Murphy. Actually, the program doesn’t tell us if they received any compensation for their investment, but I do like that it doesn’t paint the picture one way or the other. It easily could have made Herbert et al. look like victims, but it reminds us that they made mistakes.
Raw Spice has a low-rent feel that initially put me off, and I feared the show would be little more than cheap exploitation to milk a few bucks out of the Spice phenomenon. Instead, I found an engaging look at their early days bolstered by a lack of heavy editorializing and some good behind the scenes footage. This becomes a treat for Spice fans.