As a child of the ’80s, I have fond, fuzzy memories of the excuse to shill dolls that was the cartoon series “Jem.” I remember warmly its rock star narrative of an all-girl group Jem and the Holograms, who not only toured the world and thrilled adoring fans but also solved crimes, ran an orphanage and did battle with their malevolent musical rivals The Misfits. So it was with much trepidation I approached Jon M. Chu’s “Jem and the Holograms,” a live-action reboot that re-imagines Jerrica (Jem’s real-world identity) as a suburban foster kid who stumbles upon stardom after her YouTube performance of an original track goes viral. This is not the Jem I wanted, but it won me over all the same.
At first glance, Chu might seem an odd pick for this project. His résumé boasts helming gigs on “G.I. Joe Retaliation,” a string of “Step Up” movies and the concert doc “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” But if you squint, you can see how these efforts show precisely why Chu is perfect for “Jem and the Holograms.” He’s already redeemed a ’80s toy turned nostalgia-fueled reboot. He’s woven romance, directed dance, and captured concerts, all while being keenly aware of what an audience of girls demand. And these skills shine in “Jem and the Holograms,” which offers ’80s allusions, an adorable love story, some hunky eye candy and an eye-popping dance number.
Aubrey Peeples stars as Jerrica (a.k.a. Jem), a shy teen whose rocketed to stardom when music mogul Erica Raymond (a deliciously scenery-devouring Juliette Lewis) plucks her from obscurity/YouTube. Jem’s back-up band is made up of her biological sister Kimber (a spunky Stefanie Scott), and her foster sisters, fashionista Shana (the lovely Aurora Perrineau) and tech-loving tomboy Aja (scene-stealer Hayley Kiyoko). In the way of “Behind The Music,” rivalries and record deals threaten to tear the sisters’ bond asunder. But just as the series on which it’s based regularly veered from personal drama to bonkers sci-fi, “Jem and the Holograms” throws in a subplot involving a hologram-projecting robot and final requests from a departed dad.
See, before he died of an unnamed illness, Jem and Kimber’s father built a BB-8 style robot named Synergy. When the girls get to L.A. to begin their new lives as rock stars, the robo buddy springs to life, prompting them to quest for puzzle pieces that will give Jem closure and crucial advice in a hokey but heartfelt climax. Another element of fantasy found in the film is that despite Erica’s callous manipulation of Jem for profit, she never sexualizes the girl group, forcing them into the skimpy fashions favored by many pop starlets. This all might seem totally ridiculous (or maybe truly outrageous), but that’s true to brand, baby. And that’s actually why “Jem and the Holograms” worked for me, despite some cringe-inducing flaws.
Structurally, the movie is a mess, wedging the Synergy quest into the rock star drama and slathering on a romance plot (with “Boy Next Door” hunk Ryan Guzman as Rio). But that’s not all. Chu also threads YouTube vids throughout. Sometimes they are performances, like drum battles intercut to amp up the tension of an otherwise blah e-mail exchange. Sometimes they are viral vids like “Water Skiing Squirrel,” played for easy laughs. But in the finale, they’re fan confessionals revealing why people love and care about Jem, and how she inspires them. While ’80s “Jem” was defined by her massive shoulder pads and earnest attempt to have it all (the career, the control, the boyfriend, the friends, the fame, the fashion and on and on), “Jem and the Holograms” defines itself by the power of social media as a way to connect. Sure, it’s clunky in its execution, but I’d be lying if I acted like those Jem confessionals didn’t make me choke up.
Chu has delivered something all too rare, a female-fronted adventure that doesn’t shy away from being girly and earnest. “Jem and the Holograms” will likely be derided its corniness, felt most in lines like, “We’re sisters, so we’re supposed to help each other.” Remember, it’s not a movie first and foremost for adults. Sure, there’s a healthy dash of references to the show, including a section where Rio blatantly quotes the theme song (“glamour and glitter, fashion and fame”) during a pep talk. But the movie is clearly intended to inspire a new generation of girls, giving them a space to dream and a sincere heroine they can admire. And judging by the repeated squeals, gasps and aws I heard from the young girls who surrounded me at the movie’s screening, I’d say Chu does right by that crowd. And they weren’t squealing alone.
“Jem and the Holograms” made me feel like a girl again. I swooned over Rio, especially when he joins in on an impromptu song with Jerrica and the girls. I cheered when Jem found her voice onstage, playing to teens waving lit-up cellphones like I once waved lighters. I ached for Jerrica when she felt lost and alone, and I rejoiced for her when she’s reunited — in a big enthusiastic hug — by her sisters. Sure, the packaging is different, and sometimes sloppy. But Chu got to the heart of what made Jem so special and important 30 years ago, and made her newly relevant. She’s not truly, truly, truly outrageous as I’d hoped. Yet “Jem and the Holograms” delivers a fun and heartfelt narrative sure to thrill girls (and boys, I’d wager), while giving old school fans a film they can crush on.
And just a note: You better stay through the credits.
“Jem and the Holograms” opens Friday, Oct. 23.