Jem and the Holograms (2015) Review

Jon M. Chu’s Jem and the Holograms is, ostensibly, based on the 1985 cartoon of the same name. Names, themes, and concepts are shared between the two, but the film is not an adaptation in any but the loosest sense of the word. Functionally similar to Rupert Wyatt’s excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the film uses its more famous source as a launch pad for its own socio-political intent, which is, in this case, to show the dichotomy between real life and internet personas while on the surface talking about family, loyalty, and the scumminess of the recording industry.
The film is not the cartoon, and perhaps it should have used a different name, but ultimately I’m uninterested in that sort of thing. Faithfulness in adaptation can be wonderful, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking extreme liberties. I’d still really love to see Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre Batman reboot, with a poor, homeless Bruce Wayne being taken in by kindly auto mechanic Big Al. Danny Boyle’s recent Steve Jobs film takes some large liberties with a true story for the sake of creating a compelling, thematic narrative, and I’ve got no problem with that (and it’s a fantastic movie, go see it) so why would it bother me here? And ultimately, the film doesn’t really care about millennials and their nostalgia. There are a few shout-outs (and an out of place mid-credits scene) for old fans, but this is a film aimed squarely at 8-12 year olds, and that’s OK. Not everything has to cater to us 80’s kids.

This is who the movie is for.

Reaction to the film has been intensely negative; Chu received death threats over the changes he made in spite of the fact that Jem’s supposed to be about love and friendship. There’s plenty of fan and studio drama at play here, but I’d rather look at what’s in the film itself than spend time fretting over backlash and weird grudges from people who define their childhood and identity by the TV shows they watch. As someone with an interest in looking for value in critically panned films, Jem fascinated me as a topic. So if I haven’t completely lost you yet: Let’s talk about Jem: The Movie.

Kimber and Jerrica trying on some of their aunt’s old clothes, telling us everything we need to know about Aunt Bailey.

Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) is an aspiring but camera-shy musician living with her aunt (Molly Ringwald) following the death of her scientist dad (Barnaby Carpenter). She lives with three sisters: Kimber (Stefanie Scott) is beautiful and driven to find success via technology. Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) is rebellious and strong and has no patience for The Man. Shana (Aurora Perrineau) is a fashion-conscious creative type. At first a blank slate, Jerrica decides to take a risk and record a homemade music video under the guise of Jem, a persona that combines the personalities projected (holographically perhaps) by her sisters into a rounded, though invented, whole.

Jem’s ghostly debut.

To Jerrica’s shock and initial horror, the video becomes a viral hit thanks to Kimber’s efforts. Her song and her style become inspirational, and she soon captures the attention of Starlight Records CEO Erica Raymond, played by Juliette Lewis with an impressive level of scenery chewing. The girls go out to Hollywood and get molded into Erica’s prized possession, as she manipulates the way they look, sound, and act. They get a record deal and a tour, but at what cost? There’s some industry drama, a temporary band break up, and some creepiness from Erica’s son Rio (Ryan Guzman), but together the girls soon learn that family’s the most important thing (or is it?) and that it’s totally fun to rock out and go nuts and sometimes steal cars and break into your boss’s office. And sometimes your dad leaves behind a chirpy robot and a fetch quest to complete it so that you can meet his holographic spectre and hear his final goodbye.

Taylor Swift via Jerrica.

The story’s a straightforward feel-good success story with some dramatic but not lethal stakes (The girls need money to save the family home from foreclosure) and it’s told in a straightforward way. Nothing wrong with that; again, this is a film aimed at young kids who love today’s radio pop (Jem’s music is a sort of hybrid of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, though not on the same level.) It’s presented as a semi-documentary, bookended by homemade videos shot by Jerrica and interspersed with YouTube videos of amateur musicians and Jem fans doing their thing. Aspect ratios change rapidly and cameras wander around bedrooms with a slight shake, giving an eerie sense of physical presence to them. The camera at times acts as an invasive, ever present paparazzi. There are some pretty great shots, too; Jem’s first solo concert is particularly striking.

There are some awesome close ups in this song, but unfortunately I’ve only got the trailers to work with.

I appreciate that this is a movie for kids that isn’t full of bad one-liners, smarmy jokes, and non-stop movement. The loud, obnoxious trailers in front of it were a brutal reminder of how bad non-Disney kid’s films can be (I’m sorry, Angry Birds: The Movie, you look terrible.) It’s not afraid to slow down and linger, and it’s not afraid to look silly and campy. It’s an entirely earnest film, with no sense of ironic detachment, and that’s probably the most 80s thing about it. Jerrica’s family is strong and supportive, even if there are slightly sinister Hollywood Mom undertones to Aunt Bailey that manifest themselves full-force in Erica Raymond, who serves as her phantom dark side.

Ghost Dad predicts the popularity of BB-8 sixteen years early.

With her sisters, Jerrica makes a plan, accomplishes it, and does so without the need of a strong male figure (in spite of what some writers may argue while rearranging and misreading plot points.) After she’s already found her fame and success and resolved her conflicts with her sisters and led a probably ill-advised break-in, Jem completes her fetch quest and sees her dad’s final recorded farewell. She’s not a weak figure who needs her dad’s approval to become who she is, but rather, someone who earns his congratulations for making him proud. The only other male influence in her life is Rio, who gives her a pep-talk very similar to the ones she gets from her aunt and her sisters and later takes control of the record company and hosts the band’s closing concert.

Figurative holograms, unlike the literal holographic Ghost Dad.

The relationships between Jerrica, Erica, and Rio are the most interesting part of the film and are crucial to the whole in-world inspirational narrative that captivates the film’s YouTube audience. Jem is not, in any sense, a real person. She’s not the “real” Jerrica. She’s the will of her sisters made flesh, carefully coordinated by a millionaire record executive. There’s a strong dichotomy between Jerrica and Jem, as well as between Jem, the organic character created by Jerrica, and Jem, the product sold by Erica, that resolves into one being by the end. Jem is less a person and more a symbol, a living embodiment of the collective consciousness of the film’s internet. Mercifully, the internet depicted in the film is a far less vile one than the real world’s.

Kimber making memories.

Jem, the character, has no prior history, no life outside of her music, and is a brightly-costumed entertainer who appears to her audience no more than an organic Hatsune Miku. Jerrica never reveals her true identity. In part because of the mystery, audiences embrace Jem, and see her as themselves; the voiceless find a voice, bullied kids find a hero, and people afraid to be themselves come out of the closet. When she does consider revealing her true self, Jerrica realizes that there’s more value in the symbol, and tells the audience that they’re all Jem, and she’s right. The figure she portrays lives and breathes the internet, represented by internet videos interrupting and contributing to the image and sound of the film (there are moments where the film’s score is provided by off-screen YouTube performances.) The message Jem states is “be yourself,” but Jerrica chooses to sacrifice her own ego in an act of pop-culture martyrdom in order to liberate her audience. It’s a mixed message, but it’s not a mistake or an accident; Jerrica is genuinely compelled to see her fans embrace themselves and become who they truly are, but in a “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” moment, decides that she can do more by being the symbolic Hero than by being another ordinary face.

It’s also no accident that she looks like a Hunger Games character here.

Of course, every Hero needs a Villain to complete their narrative, even if the narrative is an artificial one. Erica Raymond fills this role. Aside from being a jerk, Erica doesn’t actually do anything too sinister or unexpected. She’s honest with Jerrica from day one, she outright tells her about her plans to mold the band’s image, and a major reason Jem becomes as big as she does and frees and inspires so many people is Erica’s careful image control. Erica is pragmatic and ruthless, but she’s strong and has the decency to tell her son not to creep on the new teenage band in town. In order for Jem’s narrative to work, she needs a dragon to slay, and Erica is the sacrifice made along the way. She needs to be The Villain, whether justified or not, for the symbolic narrative (boiling up from fans who feed on drama, the sisters, and Jem herself) to reach its conclusion. Realistically, any conflict between Jerrica and Erica could have been resolved calmly with time and talk, but rebellion and triumph over an oppressor sells. It’s not that Jerrica and Rio reject Erica’s game, it’s that they learn how to play it even better than she does.

Rio’s not so welcome arms.

Rio Raymond is really the wildcard here. At first introduced as an antagonist who sees the new band as a burden to babysit, he soon gets a crush on the much younger Jerrica and begins his own machinations. He befriends the band, sasses his mom, and eventually stages a corporate coup to remove Erica as CEO before taking the chair himself. Newly empowered, he kisses Jerrica, who’s now his employee, in a gross violation of power structure. It’s not played creepily, but honestly, Rio is a creep. With an over-inflated ego, he shows off his sick cool giant truck to the girls, but it’s a gaudy toy that he drives terribly. He takes them for a ride after rescuing them from their first day at Starlight’s studios. Rio is a sort of clean-cut, PG mirror of James Franco’s hip hop gangster Alien in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a decent but not very successful musician with greater ambitions who sees the candy-haired new girls as his key to success. He lacks his mother’s bile, but also her honesty, choosing to take what he wants rather than do what’s best for the record label. After Jerrica and her sisters spend two hours learning the value of family, Rio kicks his mother to the curb with a smile. If Jem’s the goodness of the internet consciousness distilled into a person, Rio’s the dark side. At least, as dark as you can get in a PG film. In a better ending, Jem/Jerrica would have rejected both Erica AND Rio and forged her own path independent of the label.

Kesha as Neon Street Mutant Pizzazz.

Funny enough, the weakest scene in the movie is the one fans seem to be reacting to most positively; mid-credits, we see a disgraced Erica Raymond seek out The Misfits, a band formerly working under her label who now live as neon street mutants in the gutters of Los Angeles. As much as I honestly do like Kesha and her green hair and scary eyebrows here, the scene’s so tonally and stylistically dissonant from the rest of the film that I can’t honestly believe it was shot by the same crew. It’s here as both an olive branch to fans of the cartoon and as a teaser for the next film, which at this point I assume won’t happen. It’s a blatant symptom of the Marvelization of film, where every movie must function as a cheap commercial for the next one.

Jem isn’t an instant classic, but nor is it the disaster that its box office take and the cartoon fan reaction would imply. It’s a decent kid’s film with some cool costumes and sometimes great cinematography, aimed at a young audience who could do far, far, far worse.

Author: Paul Harrington

Game and movie guy, fish tank enthusiast. Independent game designer at Super Walrus Games. Designer of Walthros, C. Kane, Horse Game, Ghost's Towns, and more. Shares a spiritual connection with Whale Sharks, but is a practicing Wobbegong.

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