It’s a compliment to director Jon M. Chu that I walked out of the “Jem and the Holograms” movie wanting to dot my review with a few pink heart emojis, because I walked into the theater with a giant chip on my shoulder.
The movie is based on a surprisingly subversive animated TV show writer Christy Marx created to help sell a line of Hasbro dolls in 1985. “Jem and the Holograms,” which was better than it had any right to be, combined a cool glam-rock aesthetic with a girl power theme, making sweet music to this ‘80s kid’s ears.
Though Chu’s movie sacrifices some of the TV show’s appealing weirdness, this “Jem and the Holograms” captures the fundamental spirit of female friendship and self-expression that made 1980s Jem a hit with daughters of “Working Girl” moms. In revisiting the pop rock quest of a multiracial group of adopted sisters in suburban California, Chu has made a stylish and self-aware musical fantasy for the YouTube generation.
Chu’s cast is lead by “Nashville’s” Aubrey Peeples, who has a lilting singing voice and a winning warmth as the Holograms’ shy lead singer, Jerrica/Jem, but it is a devilish Juliette Lewis as the band’s exploitative manager, music magnate Erica Raymond, who steals the show and gets many of the best lines in screenwriter Ryan Landels’ often witty script.
Advising the girls on how to navigate their first red carpet, Erica says, wisely, “Look like you’re having fun but don’t really have any fun.” Critiquing the girls’ outfits, she dismisses one as “interesting if you live in the Valley” and says of another, “reminds me of people trying to dress up their animals.”
This playfully tart tone was not what I expected when I saw the video that Chu, producer Jason Blum and music manager Scooter Braun released in 2014 announcing their live-action movie, a patronizing piece of marketing that made me want to fling a can of Aqua Net across the room. Instead of introducing Jem to a new generation of girls, they seemed to be there to explain her to a group of male consumer products executives, with Chu clutching one of Hasbro’s dolls uncomfortably and Blum promising that “cool moms” knew the show. Apparently they couldn’t find a single woman to stand in the background of their video and give the vaguest impression of female creative input.
The filmmakers further irked Jem’s considerable African American fan base by casting a light-skinned actress in the role of Jerrica’s foster sister Shana, who, as a rare black female character on cartoons in the 1980s, had given African American girls a chance to see themselves as they almost never did — at the heart of the story.
Fortunately, Chu, who has directed two “Step Up” movies, a Justin Bieber concert film and another Hasbro toy-selling vehicle, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” showed better instincts with his visual decision-making. With cinematographer Alice Brooks shooting in a Rainbow Brite lighting palette and makeup department head Mary Klimek deploying glitter and eye shadow like war paint, Chu creates a fantasy world akin to being dropped in the middle of a Cyndi Lauper video. Girls still wanna have fun — especially if they can show it on Instagram.
Though its visual inspiration is 1980s to the core, the film is set, definitively, in present day USA, where a YouTube video gone viral has rocketed Jerrica, who goes by Jem onstage, to stardom.
Chu intercuts videos of real would-be YouTube stars — drummers, singers, quirky musicians of all types — in the film, a charming touch that nevertheless has the effect of pointing out how homogeneously perfect his young cast is. Real YouTubers have chubby cheeks, blotchy skin, big ears. No one in the Holograms is over a size 2, or has ever had a zit.
The four band members are adopted sisters who live under the roof of kindly Aunt Bailey, played by Molly Ringwald in a casting trick designed to appeal to ‘80s nostalgists (mission accomplished with this easy mark). Disney Channel star Stefanie Scott is Jerrica’s bubbly little sister, Kimber; musician-actress Hayley Kiyoko is Aja, the band’s guitarist; and Aurora Perrineau is Shana, the bass player. Aja and Shana get a few good lines in, but this is really Jem’s show.
As love interest Rio, Ryan Guzman accomplishes the near impossible task of playing a heterosexual college-age male who delivers lines like, “Yes, Jem is glamour and glitter, fashion and fame,” with a straight face. Surely there’s an Oscar for that.
The movie is at its best when it embraces a campy, knowing tone, as when one character declares, “You’re Internet famous! That’s the second best thing to being actually famous!” Delightfully, the sisters capitalize on the world’s tendency to underestimate them, distracting some security guards by pretending to need help taking the perfect photo (as if they would need help with that!) and turning to one another to share a song when the going gets rough.
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‘Jem and the Holograms’
MPAA rating: PG, for thematic material including reckless behavior, brief suggestive content and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In wide release