Jem and the Holograms: It’s Showtime!, by Rudie Obias
Adapting a feature film from a thinly-plotted cartoon from the 80s can be a difficult proposition. After all, cartoons from the 80s weren’t written (or even animated for that matter) to be the most sophisticated or nuanced. Let’s face it, live-action movies of Transformers and G.I. Joe were mostly put into development for their name recognition and nostalgia factor. The new Jem and the Holograms feature is no different, but what I think director Jon M. Chu accomplishes might not be truly outrageous, but it’s a movie that takes its target audience truly seriously.
From the very beginning, Jem and the Holograms speaks to its teenage audience through social media and technology. There’s not an ounce that isn’t connected to the Internet and the possibilities it could bring an average person. And that’s where the film truly shines.
Jem and the Holograms follows Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), a teenage girl struggling to find her own identity when the world of social media creates fake ones for its users. She’s a singer and songwriter, but she lacks the confidence to share her music with anyone, even her best friend and kid sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott). The siblings were orphaned when their mother died early in their lives, and then followed by their father a few years later. Their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) raised them with her foster children Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). The five of them are a happy family, but struggle to make ends meet.
While Jerrica is trying to find a way to express herself through music, she video tapes herself playing a song she wrote with plans to share it with the world. Although she was unhappy with how it turned out, Kimber uploads the video to YouTube anyway, as her online persona Jem quickly becomes a viral sensation. Jem becomes the talk of the Internet and the record label Starlight Industries wants to find Jem and sign her to a big contract. Enter Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), the narcissistic CEO of Starlight Industries, who launches Jem into superstardom with the help of her son Rio (Ryan Guzman). Throughout Jerrica’s whirlwind rise to fame, she still struggles with her own identity, as fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Her father was an inventor who gave Jerrica a device called Synergy that helps her find her path.
As a result, It plays out like an angstier version of Josie and the Pussycats, another film adaptation from a cartoon about stardom and the price of fame; only Jem and the Holograms is sincere and earnest with its explorations and story whereas Josie is a satire. It takes teenage problems seriously, which is quite refreshing because teenage problems are still very real problems. Erica Raymond’s scene with Jerrica and her sisters is the only time an adult talks down to teenagers. The film lets its characters sort out their own problems, instead of someone like Aunt Bailey coming in to save the day.
The film also plays out like a scavenger hunt, as Jerrica tries to find the pieces hidden around Los Angeles to make Synergy work properly. While these moments feel a bit slack and almost unnecessary, they do provide an excuse to have additional live performances from Jem and the Holograms, which are really the only parts that are truly outrageous.
Chu excels at music video and commercial gloss and Jem is no different than his entries in the Step Up series (he directed Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, the best ones in the franchise) and the G.I Joe: Retaliation sequel, which is also the best of the pair. There’s a certain energy and life to the way he puts together concert and performance sequences, as if you’re in the cheering crowd of people yourself. It’s a visceral quality that gives Jem its appeal, along with its music, which is also infectious and pleasurable.
Jem doesn’t quite all come together and a few of its character moments come too easily, such as Kimber, Aja, and Shana’s disappointment with Jem’s would-be solo career. But teenagers are a lot like the weather in the Midwest, if you don’t like it, just wait 10 minutes. It bounces around narratively and emotionally that might put off sophisticated moviegoers. Jem and the Holograms also doesn’t pander to the fans of the 80s cartoon, but I don’t think this movie is for them anyway. This movie is for teenagers today and that’s the way it should be. Fans of the 80s cartoon are now in their late 20s and early 30s, so I don’t think they have any struggles or problems of knowing who they are and how to present themselves to the world. Ultimately, introducing Jem’s spirit and attitude to a new generation is why it succeeds. After all, we are all Jem!