I have to preface this by admitting I have absolutely no relationship to the cartoon that Jem And The Holograms is based on. Sorry. Anyway:
What freezes choreographer/directors? The likes of Kenny Ortega and Adam Shankman always make the most anonymous, joyless films—their understanding of dance never translating to the passionate demands of cinema—and now Step Up sequel guy Jon M. Chu can be added to the list with his Hasbro franchise launch Jem And The Holograms. Aside from the neon fairy tale cinematography by Alice Brooks Jem is oddly slack and dour, Pop without pop.
Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) lives with her biological sister Kimber (Kimber? Emily VanCamp lookalike Stefanie Scott) and foster sisters Shana and Aja (Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko) all being raised by her aunt (tense-faced Molly Ringwald). After an opening montage honoring Youtubers (the endearing ones who make music and Vlog, not the cultural pit of video game commentators) we’re introduced to Jerrica and her tight-knit brood. Peeples, with her true blue eyes and huge, kissable lips, is quite likeable, but her sisters lack appeal and throughout the movie we, like the evil record executive (Juliette Lewis), want Jerrica to go solo.
She’s discovered after donning Liquid Sky makeup and calling herself Jem—based on her deceased father’s nickname for her—in a video that Kimber (Kimber??) uploads to Youtube, making her an overnight sensation. She’s soon whisked away to a series of pop-up shows in Los Angeles with a cutesy robot named Synergy that her father invented in tow. Half the movie chronicles Jem and her sister/bandmates’ rise and struggles, and half is the WTF subplot of Jem following Synergy’s clues to a maudlin dénouement that recalls this year’s mushy mystery Paper Towns.
Jem doesn’t rock as hard as the girl group classic Ladies And Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains. It’s not in the same league. That film connected teen angst with the raw release of performing it out and Jem’s concert scenes are as spontaneous as Synergy’s beeps and programmed graphics. Jem’s songs have no lift; this music is just factory Itunes downloads. (The most memorable song in the film is Hailee Steinfeld’s transcendent masturbation anthem played as incidental music during a red carpet scene.) The best musical moment comes during an impromptu singing session under a pier that Chu thankfully milks—it’s really wonderful—but then we’re back to family sentiment between actors who don’t begin to pass as family members and Jerrica’s flirtations with Rio (What is it with this movie and names? Ryan Guzman), scion of the bigwig record company that signs Jem.
This reads like a vicious pan, but leaving the theater I didn’t feel any remorse for having seen it, and a late film montage of Youtubers saying how Jem helped their lives is a decent if naïve fantasy of internet democratization. Peeples is agreeable and Lewis is a nasty, catty pleasure, as she usually is. It’s sobering also to see a setup for a follow-up movie when you know the film you’ve watched has bombed. (Pan was the same.) I guess Kesha will never have a chance to go after Jem. A sequel to this movie will always be just a hologram.