Ever since popular music had been targeted at teenage audiences, pop stars have made the transition from the stage to the big screen. Elvis Presley set the trend in the mid-1950s, at the height of his popularity, with a succession of hit musicals that included Jailhouse Rock, G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii, but by the mid-1960s the Beatles had challenged his supremacy following their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
To capitalise of their fame, United Artists released a ‘mockumentary’ motion picture entitled A Hard Day’s Night the same year, which spoofed the excessive reactions of their fans. It would be the impact of this movie that would convince studios that singers could enjoy success at the box office, although even some of the most promising of projects would end in disaster.
When pop stars take the leap into acting it is usually in one of two ways; either by starring in a feature length spinoff based around their music, such as with Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker or The Who’s Tommy, or in dramatic roles independent of their previous work. David Bowie had gained considerable acclaim during the 1970s for his standout performances in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, while former soap opera actor-turned-pop princess Kylie Minogue shocked fans by disrobing for the coming-of-age drama The Delinquents.
With the success of the musical fantasy Spice World in 1997, it seemed inevitable that the Spice Girls’ main rival on the pop scene, All Saints, would eventually follow suit, but few could have predicted how they would choose to make their movie debut. With guns, drugs and nudity, the band that BBC one described as ‘the cool girl’s answer to the Spice Girls‘ would join forces with David A. Stewart of Eurythmics for the explicit crime caper Honest.
Having first emerged in 1997, All Saints enjoyed five top ten hits in the UK singles chart from the release of their first album, which would be certified multi-Platinum while also gaining positive reviews from the British press. But from the very beginning there were rumours of conflicts among the four band members, with siblings Nicole and Natalie Appleton often overshadowed by songwriter Shaznay Lewis and lead singer Melanie Blatt. During a party hosted by Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia in 1998 the band first crossed paths with Stewart, who had spent the years since the demise of Eurythmics working with a host of artists from Jon Bon Jovi to one-hit-wonders Alisha’s Attic.
The Appleton sisters had heard rumours that Stewart was working on a feature about young women who turn to a life of crime and so approached him with the hope of landing roles in the movie. Unsure on whether or not they would be able to handle the project he invited them to perform a screen test, and soon afterwards Nicole, Natalie and Blatt were auditioning for parts in what would become Honest.
While his musical and productions skills were acclaimed, Stewart had little experience in directing prior to commencing production on Honest. During the 1980s he had participated in the making of several promo videos for Eurythmics, most notably Here Comes the Rain Again and Thorn in My Side, although neither featured little in the way of narrative. Stewart was not the first musician to try his hand at directing, as Prince had famously carved a career as an actor and filmmaker in the cult musicals Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, while other efforts had come from David Byrne of Talking Heads, Ice Cube and Poison‘s Bret Michaels.
Very few had scored at the box office and even fewer had received a positive response from critics, although since the release of Honest other musicians have enjoyed more success behind the camera, most notably Rob Zombie, whose no-holds-barred sleaze and violence in The Devil’s Rejects and his 2007 remake of Halloween divided audiences but gained loyal followings.
The East End of London in 1968: A series of armed robberies are being committed on local businesses by a trio of masked women. The perpetrators are three young attractive sisters in their early twenties; the feisty Mandy Chase, her headstrong sister Gerry and their shy sibling Jo. The following day they read up on their exploits in the local newspaper, with sensational headlines like ‘Masked Gang Raid Warehouse’ keeping the neighbourhood on edge. Meanwhile in the West End, Daniel Wheaton, a young American law student, works as a freelance writer for a hip magazine called Zero whose philosophy, according to pretentious editor Andrew Pryce-Stevens, is to ‘denigrate, decimate, debunk, defile, demolish.’
In an effort to survey their next target, a jewellery establishment called Cavendish Gems, Gerry wanders into the office of Zero in search of a job and is invited back the following evening to attend a party hosted by Andrew. After observing the best entry points to the jewellers from the roof of Zero she runs into Daniel on the stairs, who has clearly taking a liking to her.
Duggie Ord, a feared and powerful local gangster, asks Gerry if she knows the identities of the three men responsible for the recent crime spree, offering her money as a token of his appreciation. With their mother having passed away, the three sisters live with their father, Tommy, in a rundown council house, while also keeping an eye on their timid neighbour Rose, who often receives beatings from her abusive boyfriend. To prepare for their next heist the girls glue hair to their chins and dress in suits and wigs to give them the appearance of men.
While Daniel works late at the office, the girls arrive and two scale the walls and through an unlocked window while Jo waits below. Making their way across the hall they break into the adjacent offices for Cavendish Gems, but when Daniel finds the open window he closes it and returns to the music, unintentionally locking the girls inside. But on their way out they are spotted by Daniel and Gerry is forced to punch him as Mandy makes her escape.
Sensing her sister is in trouble she tries to climb back up the drainpipe but it comes loose from the wall, causing Mandy to smash her foot through a window as she comes crashing back down into the alleyway. Daniel manages to apprehend Gerry and ties her arms with a phone wire, only then realising her true identity. Worried that if the police arrive the magazine could be shut down, Andrew orders Daniel to clean up the mess and not to notify the the authorities and then helps Gerry escape.
When she returns home she sees the police waiting outside, unaware that they are visiting Rose, and so Daniel invites her back to his flat. Worried that she may be apprehended with the gems, Gerry hides them inside Daniel’s lava lamp without his knowledge, but with Daniel unable to sleep due to the excitement of the evening she fails to escape with the jewels. Before she leaves the following morning he asks if he can write an article on the three sisters, changing their identities to protect the guilty, but she dismisses the idea and walks away.
The involvement of three members of All Saints in the movie was first announced in March 1999, with Variety revealing that they would portray ‘three sisters from London’s rough East End who go on robbery sprees in the trendy West End disguised as men, until romance puts a spanner in the works.’ To assist with the writing of the screenplay, Stewart collaborated with writing duo Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, whose impressive credentials included the sitcoms The Likely Lads and Porridge, the acclaimed drama series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the successful musical The Commitments, the latter earning a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1992. The reason for Shaznay Lewis being absent from the movie has differed depending on the source, with some stating that were no suitable roles available, although at the time she was working on material for the upcoming second All Saints album.
Events take a darker turn when Mandy decides that they need to progress from crowbars to guns, selling her body to her sleazy connection at the race track. With Rose having taken another savage beating from her partner, Chopper, Mandy pays him a visit and holds him at gun point, before knocking him out by striking him over the back of the head with the barrel. Having tied him down, she pours oil into his mouth, causing him to choke as he struggles to breathe.
Having taken a break from his article, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (its title a reference to a Beatles song), Daniel is shocked to discover Gerry in his flat, who has returned to claim the gems. Andrew and his entourage suddenly appear and he feeds everyone cakes laced with acid, before inviting her to the Tripps Festival at his family’s country home. There, surrounded by flower children, nudity and psychedelic music, Gerry starts to embrace the liberating feeling of her trip, wandering into a tent with Daniel to admire the naked flesh and sexual shenanigans of the other partygoers.
Without their sister, Mandy and Jo decide to break into the back office of a nightclub in Mayfair, but when the owner tries to struggle the gun goes off and Mandy is shot in the hand and Jo in the leg. Their only escape now is through the club, masked and nursing their wounds, and then steal a car and speed away. Still revelling in their acid trip, Gerry and Daniel sit by a fountain, throwing gems into the water, before he strips off his clothes so she can shower him with jewels. Returning to the East End, Gerry receives a visit from Cedric, one of Duggie’s henchmen, who takes her to see his employer. He informs her that a club, owned by Duggie, was robbed the previous night and Cedric had overheard one of the thieves call their accomplice Mandy. He gives her an ultimatum; either she returns not only the money from the heist but also the gems from their West End heist by tomorrow or he will hurt her.
Principal photography for Honest took place over two months during the summer of 1999 in and around London and Oxford, with locations including Oxford University. For the two Appleton sisters it was a rewarding experience, finally feeling that they were contributing artistically, instead of being kept in the shadows as they had in All Saints. Blatt, whose daughter Lilyella was barely six months old at the time of shooting, was reduced to more of a supporting role, while Nicole was given the most screen time due to the romantic subplot between Gerry and Daniel.
Perhaps the most notorious aspect of the movie were the nude scenes, particularly the two separate scenes that would involve Nicole and Natalie Appleton. Despite being nervous about appearing topless on camera, the atmosphere on set was relatively relaxed, although Nicole in particular felt uncomfortable during her sex scene. As she would recall in their autobiography Together, ‘I thought I would be able to handle it because being topless on the beach is no big deal, but at one point I just wanted him to get off me. I felt sick.’
Realising the trouble his daughters have gotten themselves into, Tommy Chase tells Gerry that after their old neighbour had crossed Duggie, some of his men were sent around to firebomb the house but killed Gerry’s mother by mistake. Unable to stand by any longer and watch his family be destroyed, Tommy confesses the truth to the police and Duggie is arrested. After observing Andrew and an accomplice stashing money inside the crotch of one of his fashion mannequins, Daniel decides to track Gerry down by visiting Jo in the hospital, but unfortunately his timing is poor as Gerry is trying to help her escape before Duggie’s men get to them. With the help of Rose they manage to escape and then set about raising enough money to escape to France. Daniel tells Gerry about Andrew’s stash of dirty money and set about performing a heist at an event in the Zero office called Loretta, but Cedric and one of his goons find a flyer and decide they will also attend.
As Cedric tries to take Gerry away to see Duggie, Mandy appears from the crowd and pulls out a shotgun, forcing everyone onto their knees as Daniel steals the money from the mannequin’s crotch. Believing the three robbers to be actors from a theatre, the crowd applauds as the sisters escape in their van but are pursued by Andrew’s accomplice. Finally managing to escape through the underground, they finally arrive in French and set up camp in the countryside, where Gerry and Daniel finally make love by a lake.
He awakens some time later to find an envelope filled with money and a necklace, while Gerry and her family continue on their journey, allowing him the chance to return to normal life. Mandy suddenly pulls the car over to the side of the road, claiming to have a flat tyre, but when Gerry climbs out to investigate, Mandy tells her she should allow Daniel to make up his own mind and that she should get her own life, before driving away and leaving her behind.
Daniel finally finds a road and tries to hitchhike, but the first car that pulls over is Andrew’s accomplice, who takes him hostage and demands that they find his money. Picking Gerry up along the way they finally track down her family, but between them they manage to beat him and leave him tied up in a field among scarecrows. Daniel and Gerry leave the others behind to starry their new life together. Despite several indications that the story would end with a blood-soaked and tragic climax, all of the protagonists escape with their takings from the final heist and leave the life of crime behind, with only the morally corrupt characters (Duggie and his hoodlums, Andrew and his accomplice) punished. Even Rose, whose abusive partner had been beaten by Tommy, is now finally free of the misery of her old life and free to start again.
Honest was universally panned upon its release, having teased those who attended the Cannes Film Festival with an extended trailer, before it was pulled prematurely from cinemas around the country. Reviews for the movie were at times savage; the BBC stated that ‘Dave Stewart is just betrayed as the first-time director he is, while Total Film criticised ‘Stewart’s patchy, badly-paced, credulity-stretching script, and his trying-hard-to-be-arty direction…this is a missable vanity project.’ Despite the movie’s selling point being the presence of three members of All Saints, Honest was classed 18 by the BBFC due to its nudity and drug content, which may have played a small part in the film’s poor box office reception.
By the time the movie was released, All Saints had made a successful comeback with the song Pure Shores, which Shaznay Lewis had written with producer William Orbit for Danny Boyle’s latest flick The Beach. Having been the only member of the band to have no involvement with Honest, Lewis would make her own acting debut the following year alongside a pre-fame Keira Knightley in the comedy Bend It Like Beckham. Despite Stewart announcing his next directorial effort around the time of Honest‘s release, to date he has yet to make a second picture.