Jem and the Holograms
We’re currently in the middle of the greatest period of pop music since the high-water mark of the 1980s. Pop in the ’80s was all glamour and glitter, fashion and fame. MTV was ascendant, and the backlash from “serious” rock had no purer voice than Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”. It was also the high point of Saturday-morning cartoons, with massive blocks mixing everything from old Warner Brothers shorts, to Hanna-Barbera classics like Scooby-Doo, to half-hour ads for Hasbro toys like G.I. Joe and Transformers. It was a natural step for writer Christy Marx to create Jem and tap into the kids’ market for the pop music that saturated the culture.
I was a fan of Jem back during that original run. It was definitely something that, like the Debbie Gibson tape in my Walkman and the Baby-Sitters Club books I checked out of the library, I knew I couldn’t admit to in public. Action scenes aside, Jem was clearly “for the girls”, though it wasn’t a simple distaff knockoff, like She-Ra was of He-Man. And yet there was something wonderful about it to me. The plots were as simplistic and melodramatic as those of the boys’ cartoons, but the Holograms’ battles with the Misfits were fought with music rather than lasers. Half the time, the central conflict was about the bizarre love triangle between Jerrica, her boyfriend Rio, and her secret rock-star identity Jem. As with the best pop music, there was nothing else like it, even as it was like everything else around.
Jem and the Holograms bears only a passing resemblance to Jem. And, for all my fond memories of the cartoon, that’s as it should be. It was a product of 1980s pop, and it just wouldn’t work the same today any more than pop itself is the same today. So we enlist Jon Chu, director of two Step Up movies and two Justin Bieber concert films, and one of his LXD writers, Ryan Landels, to translate Jem into today’s social-media saturated, post-Glee pop landscape.
And, to a large extent, they pull it off. We’ve still got Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), and their foster sisters Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). But Jerrica isn’t running her own record label here, she’s just a normal girl living with her Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) in a small town in the Central Valley of California. All that changes when she puts on a wig and makeup and records a song, using her father’s nickname for her. Kimber uploads the video behind Jerrica’s back, and by the next day it has exploded across the Internet.
Jerrica is uneasy with her anonymous fame, but when she learns that the family may lose their house she takes an offer from Starlight Music head Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) to play three shows in Los Angeles, just as long as her sisters can still be her band. Erica puts the girls through makeovers and rehearsals, and assigns Rio (Step Up alum Ryan Guzman) to look after them.
And there’s Synergy. Or, as it’s rendered here, “S1N3RGY”. In the cartoon, this was a holographic projection system invented by Jerrica’s father that altered her appearance so she wouldn’t be recognized as Jem. In the movie, it’s a non-functional gadget her father made before he died, which she keeps around as a good-luck charm of sorts. But when she returns to Los Angeles it comes to life, displaying maps to lead the girls to more of its parts, in a rehash of Earth to Echo.
The story, such as it is, spreads itself too thinly between these pieces. S1N3RGY is the only thing propelling the narrative forwards, but it’s the clumsiest possible MacGuffin, alternating between explicit directions where to go next and irrelevant backstory dumps when we get there. The same was true of Echo, but the developing relationship between the kids made up for that. It might have worked better if the new pieces had unlocked new abilities, maybe turning the little robot into something closer to the holographic special effects system that Synergy was.
Not that the girls’ performances are what really need the boost here. The standout single “Youngblood” already breathes much-needed life into the movie, and the anthemic “Way I Was” gets a brilliant, Gaga-inspired music video. The pop soundtrack is probably the best-realized part of the whole movie. It’s not ’80s glam, but like I said it’s not the ’80s anymore.
Like pop music itself, Jem and the Holograms is an assembly of largely unchallenging and inoffensive pieces. A catchy hook laid on top of a steady backbeat, filled out with some generic lyrics on time-tested subjects, sung by a an affable and attractive young lead, and you might just have a hit that appeals beyond the teen girl demographic it’s most squarely targeted at. And, for all its generic, scattershot approaches, the movie does manage to capture and even update something about the original Jem‘s concern with identity and facade. Now more than ever, in a nationally- and globally-connected world, pop and culture are about community and connection.
Jem, here, is not merely a part that Jerrica plays in secret, but a personification of pop’s promise of common ground. She embodies the spirit of everyone who puts themselves out there, saying, “I am in here. Is there anybody out there? Does anybody else feel the way I do?” The biggest difference between ’80s pop and today is that now we have the internet and social media. No longer do the ones who don’t fit in have to keep to the margins, out there in the cold, getting lonely, getting old. Sure, there are downsides to this connected world, but Jem is about a place for everyone to belong, from the girl with green hair and every Star Trek novel, to the aspiring performer with a video blog, to the trans kid trying to figure out who she wants to be, to the boy who just wants to like the “girly” things he likes without being tormented over it.
Maybe Jem and the Holograms is clumsy and awkward about the way it says all this. Maybe it sings better than it speaks. Maybe I’ve already grown too old and cynical for that promise to resonate with me, but it’s certain to resonate with someone. And even as old and cynical as I am, I don’t have the heart to tell them they’re wrong for believing in it, or that something that wants them to believe it is bad.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.