For the past year and change, I’ve been covering the wild ride that is the creation of a Jem and the Holograms movie. This is the film adaptation of one of my favorite TV series growing up, the one that inspired my love of 80’s fashion and music. The one that got me to become the pastel wearing, girl power rocking lady I am today. So, of course, I was excited knowing that my childhood hero was going to come to the big screen. Unfortunately, this is not the Jem I grew up with, and only has relation to her in name alone.
Some Spoilers Warning
Jem and the Holograms (the movie, directed by G.I. Joe‘s Jon M. Chu) is the story of Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), a teenager who lives with her adoptive mother, Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and sisters/friends Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). With Aunt Bailey’s home at risk of biting the dust, Jerrica tries to come up with a plan to save the day, which somehow results in YouTube stardom and a rags to riches type fairytale that is all too familiar. Jerrica is now known by the world at large as Jem, and has to deal with the dual persona issues of glamour, glitter, fashion and fame. Oh, and there is also a subplot involving a tiny video projecting robot and a scavenger hunt. You know, like all Behind The Music episodes have.
Yeah, right from the get-go, this is a Jem that is geared for a younger crowd, aka not me. But from the promos and pictures released, that was definitely a given. Instead this is a star turning vehicle, meant to inspire the same sort of fan praises as Jon M. Chu’s infomercial style documentaries Never Say Never and Believe, which chronicled a similar tale about real life pop star, Justin Bieber. So knowing all of this, along with the lack of Jem creator, Christy Marx involvement in the project, what exactly do we have here?
Well for starts, this movie seems like Chu’s sneaky way of making a love letter to YouTube instead of an actual Jem origin story. With the sprinkling of various clips from the famous website, and a framing device of a vlog post from our leading lady to get us through the story, it is obvious that Chu is more interested in internet fame than he is the iconic source material. In fact, much of Chu’s writing could be comparable to a screenplay created by a small child, similar to the ones read aloud on The Tonight Show. Emotions are rushed for no reason, a realistic timeframe is non-existent, and some of the most awkward of dialog in human creation is showcased. One scene in particular, features Jerrica and her sisters singing randomly, while Rio just stands to the side twirling his thumbs. When finished, they all equally agree that the moment was awkward. Yes, movie, it was.
But then there is another side of Chu, the one who exceeds in delivering sometimes beautiful visuals that appeal to the side of yourself that loved watching Pop-Up Video in the past. From a stunning water sequence, to Jem’s emotional solo performance (in a dress clearly inspired by her Glitter and Gold stage) Chu seems comfortable here, and takes so much more control over his film when these kind of moments are required. But anything outside of that realm is like asking a grocery store brand cereal to be as delicious as Count Chocula.
A fun fact about this movie, in case you didn’t know, is that it was made on a 5 million dollar budget, and by god does it show in the most obvious of places. Never have I seen a production cut so many corners to save their money, particularly in the use of YouTube musical performances to set the mood. Because, you know, when I think of the movie score “sound” of Jem , I automatically think of two boys making knee slapping beats in their school cafeteria. This, plus the influx of obviously trimmed vlog posts from users that loved the Jem cartoon and not the protagonist of the movie, add to the overall messy vibe of the entire end product.
But probably the most obvious missing ingredient from this adaptation is Synergy, or more importantly, the incarnation of her that was actually cool. Instead, this film presents us with a tiny, Earth to Echo meets Nintendo’s R.O.B style robot, whose only real purpose is to play video voicemails, rather than – oh I don’t know – do something useful?! I understand that this movie wants to appeal to a younger audience, but having the actual Hologram technology from the original series (which in 2015 would have probably improved dramatically) would have been much more interesting, especially if it was in more Sci-Fi friendly hands than this production team.
When it comes to the cast, everyone is attempting their best with the clunky material they are given. Peeples makes an effort to bring some unique takes to her dual role of Jerrica and Jem, but unfortunately feels more like she’s doing her best Kristen Stewart impression during most of the emotional scenes (though I think much of that is due to the direction, more or less.) The rest of the Hologram squad are resorted to plot devices at best, along with poor Molly Ringwald, leaving nothing much to critique for any of the bunch. The standout, for better or worse, is Juliette Lewis as Erica Raymond (the genderbent version of series villain Eric Raymond.) Lewis is having the time of her life playing the most cartoonish character in the entire movie, but maybe that comes from the amount of scotches she had to pound to get through every scene – just my guess.
It’s a shame that everyone in this cast is, in fact, talented, and could have worked well together in an actual and proper adaptation of the series. I honestly could see everyone involved, particularly Peeples, working well inside the real Jem universe, and if there ever was to be a movie version of the new IDW comic book series (which is fantastic, might I add) I’d love to see her featured, along with some other cast that appear in an end credits scene (aka the ones who have the better songs.)
On the plus side, there are quite a few cameos that really put a Hologram tear in my eye. Samantha Newark (voice of Jem) and Britta Phillips (singing voice of Jem) appear in somewhat of a “passing the torch” type moment, particularly with Britta telling Jem “You got this” right before her concert debut. And even though she wasn’t involved in any pre-production way, it was nice to see Christy Marx make a brief cameo as well, though you could see her biting down her teeth throughout.
Another slightly bright spot are the songs in the film, which though are not the tunes from the series, are decent modern tributes. “Youngblood” – Jem’s big debut single, stands out among the pack, along with “The Way I Was”, which is the musical love child of Jem classics “Only Me and the Music” and “Can’t Get My Love Together”. Though nothing on the soundtrack is revolutionary, at least there was a little bit of thought put into that category, in an otherwise rushed effort.
At the end of the day, Jem and the Holograms is a film that suffers from an identity crisis much worse than its own protagonist. It wants us to exit the theater believing in ourselves and to be inspired, but instead leaves you feeling that, unless you are a musically talented teen with an Instagram account (who is worshipped like an idol), you probably are not anyone special. The original Jem told the story of a grown woman who had aspirations and dreams outside of fame and fortune, and wanted to do anything she could to make her loved ones okay. Granted, some of those elements are here, but are instead told through teenage Social Media eyes, which lacks the fun and genuine feeling that the TV series conveyed. And that is truly, truly outrageous.