What good intentions Jem and the Holograms has are weighed down by its cheap aesthetic and thinly-drawn storyline.
Jem and the Holograms tells the story of Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), a talented young singer who lives in a small California town with her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) and foster sisters Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau), all of which are likewise aspiring musicians, under the care of Jerrica and Kimber's Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald). When Jerrica hesitates to upload a video of herself performing in disguise, going by the nickname "Jem" (which her late father gave her), Kimber takes the initiative and posts the clip online - unexpectedly turning "Jem" into an overnight viral hit in the process of doing so.
Shortly thereafter, Jerrica and the others are offered a tour deal from Starlight Music head honcho Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) which they accept, sending the four young musicians further on their way to becoming musical superstars. However, when Jerrica is faced with a career decision that would put her at odds with her sisters, she is forced to re-evalute her priorities - and consider what it really means to be true to yourself.
Jem and the Holograms plays out as a modernized origin story for the "musical superhero" characters that are depicted in the popular Jem cartoon series: a show which aired from 1985-88. Unfortunately, the film's script by Ryan Landels (The LXD: The League of Extraordinary Dancers) does so by using a thinly-drawn and very by the numbers storyline about musicians whose dreams of stardom are granted - forcing them to navigate the pitfalls that come with fame, along the way. Many Jem cartoon fans will also be disappointed by how the live-action movie reimagines elements of the original TV show, such as the robot Synergy; who, in the film, is reduced to being a stereotypical cutesy robo-sidekick, as part of a rather under-whelming subplot. Even with a mid-credits scene (yes, there's one of those) that promises a sequel with more elements from the original animated series, there's not a whole lot of the original Jem and the Holograms in this live-action iteration.
Moreover, as a standalone project, Jem and the Holograms is simply under-cooked from a storytelling perspective; it's riddled with contrivances, two-dimensional characters, and plot developments that (to be blunt) don't make any sense, even according to the movie's own rules. As a result, when the movie examines how Jem and her sisters have inspired their masses of adoring fans by "being themselves" - while also examining how young people use tools such as YouTube to connect with others and embrace their own identities - its messages come across more as hollow and calculated, rather than sincere. Jem and the Holograms includes a number of sequences where people (including a handful of real-life celebrities) talk about their love for the eponymous band, but it fails because it doesn't show what makes them so admirable.
The flashy, yet empty, manner in which director Jon M. Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) stages the proceedings in Jem and the Holograms further contributes to the hollowness of the film's themes and its life lessons. The movie was produced for a relatively cheap $5 million, largely as a result of its DIY aesthetic; including, lots of simplistic handheld camerawork and enough in the way of either YouTube clips or footage shot by the movie's characters that Jem almost feels like one of producer Jason Blum's found-footage horror movies, style-wise. However, Chu does know how to stage music/dance numbers with panache - and the sequences where Jem and her band perform live are all the more impressively staged (in terms of visuals) for it. Some of the movie's original songs are catchy too - if also about as on the nose and shallow as the average bubblegum pop song can get.
Unfortunately, the majority of Jem and the Holograms doesn't involve musical performance numbers; rather, they involve domestic drama situations, where the camerawork tends to be weaker (even when it's not material shot by characters in the actual movie) and the film's limited budget starts to become glaringly obvious. Chu and his frequent editor Jillian Twigger Moul - with co-editor Michael Trent (Joy Ride 3, Sinister 2) - sometimes attempt to add more punch to the film's melodrama scenes by splicing in footage of YouTube videos featuring amateur musicians in action. That stylistic flourish adds some vibrancy, but largely proves ineffective and fails as either a celebration of individuality (even when it shows real people demonstrating their talents) or as a useful dramatic storytelling tool. The end result: a Jem and the Holograms movie that looks and feels as artificial as the very corporate mindset it aspires to condemn.
The young main cast members of Jem and the Holograms - Aubrey Peeples (Nashville), Stefanie Scott (Insidious: Chapter 3), Hayley Kiyoko (CSI: Cyber), and Aurora Perrineau (A House is Not a House) - are saddled with two-dimensional characters to play; though, each of them do bring screen charisma to the table. Similarly, Ryan Guzman (Heroes Reborn) as Rio, the Jem band road manager, has his charms and shares a harmless romance with Jerrica, but the character is otherwise forgettable. As it were, the best performances are by former '80s teen stars Molly Ringwald and Juliette Lewis as, respectively, the quirky parental figure and over the top villain of the movie; more often than not, though, they wind up being sidelined.
What good intentions Jem and the Holograms has are weighed down by its cheap aesthetic and thinly-drawn storyline. Director Jon M. Chu serves up enough in the way of shiny (but empty) visuals, snappy (yet vapid) music, and entertaining (though unintentional) campy melodrama that the movie should have some appeal to certain members of the younger demographic that it's clearly aimed at. However everyone else and especially those who enjoyed the Jem cartoon series for what it is and what it represented back in the '80s - this is far from the (here it comes) "truly outrageous" film you might've hoped for.
Jem and the Holograms is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 118 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic material including reckless behavior, brief suggestive content and some language.
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