“Every generation needs a voice.”
The above tagline for Jem and The Holograms (2015) carries its own bit of irony given that its based on a cartoon that catered to a previous generation. Given the successes of the Transformers and (relatively speaking) GI Joe films, it comes as no surprise that Hasbro dipped into its “toy-to-toon” back log for yet another live-action adaptation. Despite the fact that the show only ran for three years, Jem the cartoon developed a beloved cult status that has lasted decades, gaining new generations of fans. So, in effect, more than one generation has been listening and once they tune in to this film, they would find that voice somewhat discordant.
By now, it is a truism that should be held as self-evident that Hollywood productions of beloved comics and cartoons will never be 100% faithful to the source material. The producers will reinvent the wheel to make it “relevant” and to maximize its potential to reach the broadest audience possible. Ofttimes, the elements that make such properties unique and treasured are cast aside in the name of “realism” and “relatability”, until it’s so stripped of its core identity that it’s barely recognizable. Jem walks that fine line. It keeps enough of the core elements intact, but reinvents them in such a way that its more fantastical elements are excised in the name of reality.
In other words, purists won’t like it one bit.
In the cartoon, Jerrica Benton was CEO of Starlight Music by day, and rock superstar Jem by night. Jerrica was the CEO of Starlight Music as well as the owner of an AI computer named “Synergy”, whose holographic abilities Jem could utilize through the use of her earrings. In the film, which is presented in flashback documentary style, Jerrica has been re imagined as a reluctant teenager (played by Aubrey Peeples) who, along with her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), have been adopted by their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald), who is already foster mother to two other girls: Aja (Haley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). Jerrica possesses a beautiful singing voice but is reluctant to share it with the world. When Aunt Bailey is threatened with foreclosure, and after much encouragement from her sisters, she records herself singing a ballad she wrote herself but then decides to have it erased. Instead, it gets uploaded onto YouTube and promptly goes viral, catching the attention record producing mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis in a gender-bending role, as the source character is male), who wants to sign Jem as a solo artist. In the midst of this whirlwind, Justin Bieber-esque rise to stardom, an old robotics experiment of her late father’s comes to life (this film’s version of Synergy, re-imagined as a cute little robot who already suffers the unfortunate happenstance of being overshadowed by BB-8 from a certain forthcoming film), causing Jerrica and her sisters to embark on a scavenger hunt from beyond the grave.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this film, that’s because there is. Unfortunately, director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels don’t justify much of that action, especially in terms of the scavenger hunt “b” plot; the story propels the characters into certain undertakings sans explanation (satisfactory or otherwise) as to why. Also, there are many convenient deux ex machinas to be found (and some by way of Synergy) that to explain them any further would go into big spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that many a scalp will hurt from all the head scratching the story engenders. Speaking of story, the film’s pacing is uneven. It begins interestingly, then meanders through the second and third acts until everything is rushed to a conclusion which, quite frankly, has no teeth. There’s never any real sense of urgent danger in any of the conflicts in the film and when they’re resolved, they’re done so in an almost pat fashion.
Most distracting of all is the product placement. Every frame seems to be littered with some corporate logo, whether product or web based. True, this is the same saturation that can be found in everyday life, but art doesn’t have to imitate life to this degree.
With all these issues, it would be easy to dismiss Jem outright…but for all its faults, it has its strengths, too; the most important of which being the actors. The actors who play the Hologram quartet are naturally believable in their roles. Peeples’ Jem/Jerrica is no supermodel stunner from the cartoon, but instead a beguiling teen with a sense of responsibility and self-deprecation, who’s singing voice delights and enchants. Scott’s Kimber’s earnestness is so palpable, one can’t help but want her as their own sister. The most fun and compelling sister is Kiyoko’s Aja, who is not as demure as her cartoon counterpart. Perrineau’s Shana is the blander sister if only by comparison, but she too has her moments. On the flip side, as of this writing it’s really difficult to make heads or tales of Lewis’ performance. Perhaps her take of the Raymond character is based off of true-to-life producers she’s met in her career, but at times her quirks can be a bit too over-the-top distracting that it jolts one out of the story. Her villainy is telegraphed even before she appears on screen, but her character is never a true threat; annoying, maybe, but not really serving as the effective foil a heroine requires.
The film also does a good job of balancing the retro with the modern, visually representing 80’s kitsch in a way that feels at home in today’s pop culture zeitgeist. That blending of then and now is personified by Jem/Jerrica herself in a solo number where its difficult to tell where Jem ends and ady Gaga begins.
The film’s other saving grace is its positive message. Jem and The Holograms is refreshingly cynicism free (at least, within the story itself). No “wink wink” snark to be found here. It’s overriding theme is acceptance of the uniqueness of the self and, if one pays close attention, the true target audience is anyone who is afraid to let their true selves shine; anyone who has ever felt like a (dare I say it…dare…dare) misfit. It is not only evident with the testimonials of Jem’s adoring fans, but in a clever technique that pivotal moments are intermittently cut with footage of free-styling musicians and artists whose beats matches the scene’s emotional beats . The feminist-anthem songs are foot tappingly energetic, and the actors glee in performing the musical numbers is admittedly infectious.
The performances and browbeating message makes the film somewhat likable, if not enjoyable. Unfortunately, the film’s minor positives do not outweigh its negatives. Honestly, these characters could have been substituted with those from “Josie and The Pussycats” and still have told the same tale (Maybe they did; I never did see the Rachael Leigh Cook-starring 2001 film). So much of what made the cartoon unique is stripped away, making it that much more generic. With some imagination, this film could have been “truly, truly outrageous”. Instead, it is truly, truly egregious.