“A deceptive and thoroughly lackluster affair”
Even as someone who has only seen a handful of episodes and clips of the originals 1980’s cartoon show Jem and the Holograms, there’s something to be said about the scummy way that series came to get a mainstream film adaptation. The project was largely helmed by director Jon M. Chu and co-producer Scooter Braun, two individuals responsible for furthering the career of Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber by way of two mediocre documentaries in the earlier part of this decade. It would appear upon seeing even the trailer for the feature-length adaptation of Jem and the Holograms that this film has desperately little to do with the Television program on which it was based, and the story and characters have been incredibly modernized to fit the internet generation, as well. What seems to have happened here is that Chu, Braun, and screenwriter Ryan Landels saw an opportunity to make a film about the perils of the music industry, but instead of marketing it as an original property – an uphill battle – they decided it would be easier to more-or-less hijack the namesake of an eighties cartoon show, a relatively obscure one in order to refrain from an explosive public outcry about sanctity and nostalgia, and use what minimal relevance it has in the modern day to promote their story. The result is a mediocre film that spits in the face of the loyalist fans of the program, and its legendarily bad box office haul go down in the books as a case for what occurs when executive producers think they know better than the masses and choose to alienate rather than incorporate.
The cartoon show was a bonafide piece of eighties camp, heavy on glam-rock and wildly colorful, animated backgrounds and had enough pleasant musical numbers to warrant some warm fuzziness. It was never anything bigger than its twenty-two-minute network timeslot, but it had its charm and its run. The film focuses on Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), an aspiring but self-conscious singer who lives with her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) and her friends Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau), all of whom also aspiring musicians. When Jerrica, often nicknamed “Jem,” a name her father by which her later father referred to her, records a video of herself doused in makeup and a costume, performing a simple, acoustic guitar, the quiet decision Kimber makes to upload it to Youtube results in incalculable overnight popularity for her bashful sister.
When Jerrica finds out what her sister did, she has no time to be angry because famous record label and music industry mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) contacts her with plans to sign her to a lucrative record label. While Jerrica has seen unfathomable viral love because of her talent and her enigmatic look and identity, she sees her potential breakout move as something that should be embraced by her sister and friends, as well. Jerrica, in turn, only agrees to the record label if Kimber, Aja, and Shana can come along too, to which Erica and her partner/son Rio (Ryan Guzman) accept for now.
Then there’s “Synergy,” a small, unfinished robot device that Jerrica’s father made shortly before his passing. It was said to be one last gift for her, and its significance in the film is to inspire goofy moments of beatboxing and certain science-fiction circumstances. It was something that worked well in the realm of animation – especially for the kind of time-specific era of the 1980’s – but feels corny and unbelievably out of place in this adaptation.
What also feels completely foreign to this film is subtlety in any conceivable manner. This is the kind of film that feels it’s being hip and in-the-know by emptily referencing Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in every other scene, or going as far to showing screen-caps of social media activity on such websites. It also, paradoxically, finds a way to make the most artificial and unbelievable film about remaining true to oneself and maintaining their dignity and family roots that I have yet to see. Characters speak less like humans and more like guidance counselors, pre-programmed with morally uplifting and reassuring buzzwords and phrases to make one another feel better. The scene where Jem’s bandmates ditch her upon finding out her creative decision is resolved about as quickly as the conflict is introduced, with no kind of expository development as to how or why the women came to such a decision. As a result, unlike the two hours I spent watching Steve Jobs, which flew past me, the two-hour runtime of Jem and the Holograms felt like a dreary, never-ending slog through the realm of music industry cliches and “family is first” testimonies iterated by people that did nothing but eventually break those promises.
While the ever-changing costume and makeup designs provide for a consistent kinetic element to the film and the performers, particularly Peeples, have an admirable amount of energy, none of these moving parts can disguise Jem and the Holograms from being a deceptive and thoroughly lackluster affair. Even thoughtful commentary in the film’s conclusion about the overarching reason why many of us love to listen and embrace music, as it often channels emotions that are otherwise incapable of being summoned from conversation or any other form of expression, comes in a belated fashion. It exists as a generic vehicle that turned an original, if campy, eighties cartoon into a boring and unenjoyable parable on personal pride and commitment.