An unlikely down-tempo, live-action, very loose adaptation of an 80’s cartoon, Jem and the Holograms is a watchable feature likable at heart. It’s an ordinary star-is-born rock and roll movie made with some earnest attention to what makes some modern stardom different. It starts when Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples of ABC’s Nashville), a shy teenager, puts on a pink wig and David Bowie face paint, then sings one of her original songs into a camera, introducing her alter ego as “Jem.” Embarrassed, she thinks she deletes the video. But one of her sisters (Insidious 3’s Stefanie Scott) uploads it to YouTube, where somehow this modest, unassuming thing goes the most viral possible. The whole world is asking, “Who is Jem?” A record label emails about signing a contract with her. She’s reluctant, but her sisters (the others are Chasing Life’s Aurora Perrineau and The Fosters’ Hayley Kiyoko) are excited, and ready to be her band. You’re Internet famous, they tell her.
Ryan Landel’s script has a largely benevolent web culture play the petri dish in which a layer of authenticity can grow, ready to be plucked fresh and naïve from obscurity to be co-opted by corporate interests. These modern trappings give the movie its way into the usual star-on-the-rise metaphor for finding your true self. Jerrica and her sisters kiss their guardian (Molly Ringwald, projecting maternal warmth) goodbye as they are taken to Los Angeles and bankrolled into showbiz by a record executive (Juliette Lewis, delighting in fun line readings) who tells them they can’t be who they are. A flashy presence – introduced strutting in silver pants – she’s only interested in selling “Jem,” in selling the mystery. A snappy businesswoman, Lewis selling every sneering retort and forceful order, she plans new looks with a team of stylists, coaches, choreographers, musicians, and one cute intern (Ryan Guzman) young enough to flirt with love interest status.
The girls spend their time trying on other’s expectations, trying to decide who they really are in the crucible of celebrity. “I’m having a secret identity crisis,” Jem says, even as her public image is an instant sensation, the public clamoring for her first concert. Their boss puts them up in the company mansion, and has three pop-up concerts planned to unveil their first three singles. She expects them to conform to her rules: no social media, no bad behavior, and no staying out past curfew. With a group dynamic that’s sweet and encouraging, the young women are excited by the glamour of Hollywood just on the horizon. They argue, but interpersonal conflicts are mild, as they mostly get down to the business of building their brand while staying true to themselves. It’s sweet, a charming story of glitter and sparkles and sisterly love that stays totally PG in its portrait of the downside of instant celebrity. Once the contract is signed, will they even have time to sing together for fun? (Hint: you bet.) It’s like a squeaky clean Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.
Loaded with lots of fashion montages, hangouts, and performances, it hits the beats you’d expect, plus an unexpected but not entirely unwelcome prominent subplot about Jem’s late inventor father’s unfinished robot. Named 51n3rg.y (pronounced “synergy”), the thing, looking like two silver spheres stacked on an RC tire, bleeps to life and intermittently leads the girls on a scavenger hunt for its missing parts. The only remaining vestige of the far more outrageous fantasy cartoony source, aside from a weird sequel tease in the end credits, it’s another metaphor for piecing your identity together out of the past and future with the help of those closest to you. That’s nice, part of the movie’s utterly pleasant approach, where the story is a little cliché and larded with underfed melodrama – romances and professional jealousies flicker, then fade fast – but effective anyway. The girls are generally kind, their only conflict how to stay friends amidst the craziness. And Lewis plays not so much a villain, but takes for granted she can make or break these girls, and will do so depending on how it helps her.
The movie is intercut with amateurish YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr videos from Jem fans, sometimes providing a Greek chorus of testimonials to the power of being yourself, other times featuring music that flows into or out of bits of score. Often distracting, it still makes a nice point about web content as the soundtrack of our lives, even if it pushes way too hard on the sentimentality. People like Jem for the image they’re sold, but do the crowds like the real her? The girls are positioned as avatars of authenticity who bring their normalcy into outsized pop music, creating songs that are catchy, and certainly no better or worse than what you’d hear on the Top 40. Their performances are entertaining, high energy. (A funny detail is a tossed off line bragging that MTV, Billboard, and Slate are competing for exclusives about Jem.) It’s not hard to see why they’d be popular, but it’s also easy to tell they’re the sort of look a record label could fill with any halfway decent group of musicians.
It’s a midpoint between the director Jon M. Chu’s Step Up 3D, far and away his finest work yet, and his portrait-of-a-young-star documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Jem is colorful, with fun costumes and bubbly performances, wall-to-wall pop music, while having a gentle perspective on the novelty and fluke luck it takes to break into the industry via social media, buffeted by viral communal energy and corporate demands. It’s a slick and relaxed movie, often content to fall back on stereotypes, but in appealing ways. It’s comforting to know the nice people won’t finish last. There’s something kindhearted and real at its center, a lack of cynicism about connection and community leading to its best moment: a club losing power mid-performance, but the show going on acoustically, the beat held in stomps and claps, the stage illuminated by the glow of a hundred strangers’ phones.