Jem is honest enough in its aims that the sacrilegious divergence from the original material can almost be forgiven.
For a series as obscurely adored as “Jem”, this much maligned feature adaptation has managed to piss off a great deal of the filmgoing public based on little more than some mediocre marketing and a few poorly placed hashtags. For the uninitiated (or the intentionally forgetful), “Jem” was a cartoon about a pop singer with a double life. Jerrica Benton ran an orphanage and a record label, all the while moonlighting as her own biggest artist (the titular Jem) with the fanciful help of a hologram-generating computer program called Synergy. The rest of her band, the Holograms, was rounded out by her sisters, and they spent the entire series feuding with rival band the Misfits (no Danzig.) It was kinda like “G.I. Joe” for girls, but it was also a little deeper than that. A lot of the shows for “boys” had little substance, but series creator Christy Marx injected a lot of fascinating ideas about gender inequality, identity politics and romance that have resonated far after the show’s iconic glammy aesthetics went out of date.
Marx had absolutely nothing to do with Step Up 3D helmer Jon M. Chu’s movie. If you know any of the words to the source material’s catchy theme, there’s a strong chance you’ll be sprinting for the exits no less than 10 minutes into the radical departure of the film’s first act. The movie Jerrica is in her late teens, ably portrayed by Aubrey Peebles. Rather than running a record label, she’s an aspiring musician with a crippling strand of stage fright, having grown up with her birth sister, Kimber (Stefanie Scott), and her adopted siblings, Aja (Haley Kiyoko) and Shanna (Aurora Perrineau), who were all raised by Jem’s aunt Bailey (a rare, welcome performance from Molly Ringwald!). The girls all live in what can best be described as a 40-year-old’s embarrassing approximation of millennial culture. They constantly use social media in a way typically outlined in misguided think pieces and regularly film one another with a DSLR like they were born in the opening scenes of a found footage horror movie. If you want a clear indication of how out of touch this approach is, look no further than a fascinating moment where Kimber emphatically shares a YouTube video to Google+.
The story is set in motion by a Rube Goldberg device of trite plot machinations, namely Jerrica recording a song in her bedroom as her new improved alter ego, that song incredulously blowing up on the internet after Kimber decides to share it and Aunt Bailey being on the verge of losing their home—leaving Jerrica and the girls open to the financial exploitation of the film’s true star, Starlight Music head honcho Erica Fucking Raymond (Juliette Lewis). This wonderful little bit of gender-bending (the original Raymond was an Eric) is the film’s greatest decision. With the absence of cartoon Jem’s chief rival Misfits, their frontwoman Pizzazz’s signature punk-fueled fury has been subsumed by a career-best turn from Lewis, operating so many miles ahead of her co-stars and the film they’re all stuck in that she’s ducking clouds, meteorites and the surface of the sun itself, delivering a master class in the expressive power of narrowing one’s eyes at exactly the right moment. In the likely event that there’s no Oscar waiting for Ms. Lewis come February, the work she’s doing here will at least serve as a treasure trove of imminently shareable .gifs.
Initially, the film seems to eschew the animated series’ reliance on loose science fiction by excluding Synergy entirely, which felt like a travesty given the metaphorical power of the supercomputer originally possessed. In the show, Synergy bares more than a passing resemblance to her late mother, so this matronly specter of digitized magic giving her the ability to transform herself and her friends into whatever she sets her mind to held some symbolic heft. Here, Chu and company have re-envisioned Synergy as, well, a beat-boxing Roomba with cutesy canine qualities that borders on Jar Jar Binks levels of annoyance. “Synergy” sets her on a rudimentary scavenger hunt to find out her deceased father’s final message. It’s a fruitless journey with an anticlimactic bit of catharsis at its destination, and serves to do little more than pad the film’s already bloated runtime.
While the copious deviations from the source material’s mythology will irk some and enrage many, the film as a whole is a rather inoffensive exercise in pop storytelling, bogged down by some truly execrable dialogue and unsteady camera work. Chu and Bieber-wrangler/producer Scooter Braun both seem to have some fascinating ideas about the omnipresent role of social media and streaming video in modern society, and exploring them through this decades-old toy property is a noble effort. But for every successful piece of aural experimentation, like the motif of scoring high pressure scenes to the percussive volleying of curiously non-diegetic step dance and drum battle videos, there’s another that falls flat on its face, like pretty much any scene involving Synergy.
The script just isn’t up to the task of giving a voice to Chu’s ideas. It’s no surprise that the film’s finest moments are the ones mercifully devoid of dialogue, or so sharply realized that they overpower the words. He washes the frame in an iridescent flurry of neon and pastel for an extended sequence at the pier and cuts in disturbingly close as Erica scrutinizes the girls, teaching them how to smize and squinch and otherwise contort their faces for the hawking paparazzi. He situates the application of cosmetics as a double edged sword, aiding and plaguing young women in equal measure, first as Jerrica’s protective warpaint when she’s too shy to show the world her true self, and then as restrictive lines drawn on the girls faces by intruding stylists.
The music, while cloying at times, should have been given more focus, as Jerrica herself muses in the film’s redundant narration, music can say things simple words can’t. “Jem” as a series understood this maxim, often masking complex themes inside short bursts of infectious music video set pieces. A song like “Who Is He Kissing” presented a love triangle between Jerrica, her alter ego and her boyfriend. “The Real Me” reconciles the peaks and troughs a relationship goes through. The only song in the film that comes close to the appeal of those gems is “Youngblood,” the film’s finest moment that serves as the band’s real coming out party. With a propulsive energy reminiscent of Ke$ha and a cribbed lighting scheme lovingly borrowed from Mark Romanek’s Linkin Park video “Faint”, it’s the one song in the whole film where you genuinely feel the emotional power Jem & the Holograms are purported to inspire in the masses.
To please the diehards, perhaps someone like Edgar Wright or Speed Racer-era Wachowski Sibs would have had to be behind the camera, but as it stands, Jem is honest enough in its aims that the sacrilegious divergence from the original material can almost be forgiven. IDW’s Jem comic book series is a far superior choice if you want to see this anachronistic darling brought lovingly into the 21st century, but for a generation of young women starved for worthwhile representation, Jem is nowhere near the bad starting point early buzz would suggest.