Diehard fans of the 80’s-era cartoon television series “Jem and the Holograms” appear in the new movie of the same name, but something looks off. They don’t reference the new version of the character, and they’re even wearing the old t-shirts that feature the cartoon’s trademark symbol.
That’s because “Jem and the Holograms,” the movie, took advantage of its fan base by exploiting their support for the original show. The resulting misfire — which opens theatrically today — is an insult to all of them.
It seems only right that the long-rumored live-action “Jem and the Holograms” feature was announced by way of a YouTube video. In March of 2014, the film’s creative team — including director Jon M. Chu and producers Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity”) and Scooter Braun (best known as Justin Bieber’s manager) — took to the Internet to share that, not only was the film finally in the works, but that they were seeking fans of the original series to make their story rock.
“We want to invite you into our process and help us make our next movie, from writing music to designing costumes to even casting,” Chu said, holding a Jem doll up to the camera as proof. “Whatever it is, we want you to be part of our creative team.”
Chu’s request for fan involvement was a wise one, considering how devoted Jem fans still are to the television series, a Hasbro-created cartoon that ran for three seasons from 1985 to 1988.
Yet here were were three well-established Hollywood men announcing their intentions to create a feature-length version of a beloved property that tends to lean towards a female audience, an inspirational rock star who frequently touts a desire for people to shine and be unique in their own ways.
It wasn’t exactly clear what these three knew about “Jem and the Holograms,” but they at least had the good sense to appeal to fans in an actionable way.
Yet even in this first announcement, Chu made no bones about his take on the Jem storyline, referring to it as a “modern day reinvention” of the beloved property. As jarring as the “reinvention” word might sound to fans who grew up on Jem, Chu appeared to soothe fears with his first request: That fans submit videos specifically about why they loved the original Jem, with no consideration for how his new film might alter the film’s mythos or legacy.
“We want to see and hear your passion for the original Jem,” Chu said, before launching into the next steps, including a call for audition videos from anyone — and everyone — interested in starring in the film.
The concept for Chu’s “Jem and the Holograms” feature is a thoroughly modern one, a technology-centric film that riffs on the idea that the personalities and lives we present online — from Twitter to Instagram, YouTube to Facebook — aren’t genuine reflections of our actual experience. Chu’s film takes this well-tread idea one step further, imagining that our online lives are actually “secret identities” that people hide behind, a contemporary entry point into the concept of the original “Jem and the Holograms” series. It’s also, as it turns out, a lousy one.
The film centers around a shy teen suddenly thrust into superstardom when a YouTube video of her singing makes its way on to the web, where it’s almost instantaneously gobbled up by the masses, who pretty much demand she hit the stage. Soon, young Jerrica (aka Jem) is an international star, though her “real” identity remains hidden behind makeup, a wig and the apparent freedom of the Internet.
Despite an interest in the tension between our “real” lives and the ones we live online, there’s never any concern that Jerrica will be exposed as Jem. It’s a strange misstep that not only dilutes the film’s modern aims, but that also speaks to its undercooked writing (Jerrica doesn’t seem to have any kind of life before she rockets to superstardom, a far cry from the exceptionally detailed backstory and character elements that Marx kitted her Jem out with).
Seeking out an unknown to fill the role was an obvious choice, a bit of synergy that paired well with the film’s own modernized plot. No one knows who Jem is in the movie, so why not cast a newbie for a role that’s entirely about becoming famous overnight because of something that happened on the Internet?
Chu, Blum and Braun framed their ask in a positive way, telling prospective participants, “Rather than asking for money, we’re asking for your creativity.” And they took it.
Just a little over a month later, Chu’s “Jem and the Holograms” had found its star: Aubrey Peeples, a professional actress best known for her turn on TV’s “Nashville,” who presumably didn’t use a YouTube video to submit her audition. As the rest of casting announcements for “Jem” started rolling in, however, it became clear that the film’s leading roles would only be populated by professional talents, not newbies or rising stars culled from a video cattle call (even the film’s supporting roles are filled by such big names as Molly Ringwald and Juliette Lewis).
No movie star in the making was going to be found, even if that was the intention in the first place, but that the video casting call was barely in place for month by the time Chu cast Jem and all her Holograms doesn’t make it seem as if the creative team spent that much time wading through solicited submissions.
Instead, the request for fan-made videos became exactly what Chu initially said it was not: A contest.
By July of this year, the original casting call for videos had shifted gears, instead offering up brief appearances in the final movie to all winners. It wasn’t clear how long the included clips would be, where they would appear in the film or even how many would appear, but one thing was obvious: They would leave no room for starring roles for even the most flashy and exciting of submissions, as the first trailer for the final film had been released two months earlier. The “Jem and the Holograms” team had stopped looking for stars after just one month; now, they sought more material to edit into their final feature.
What had once been known as the “Star in Jem” contest then asked fans to post videos of them singing and dancing to songs from the movie — not to original “Jem” jams, although the first video emphasized a desire for shout-outs to the original Jem — though Variety noted the film’s producers specifically asked for actors to submit “testimonials addressed to the fictional Jem about ‘how she has given you courage to be yourself'” — a strange task, considering that it required participants to talk about the inspirational value of a character they had yet to meet, one who had been reinvented wholesale from the character they were asked to lavish praise on. What’s inspiring about the new Jem? It was hard to say.
That’s perhaps why so many of the submitted videos in the final cut of the film feature fans wearing vintage “Jem” gear, dressed and made up like the original Jem and talking about the original character. Asked to address Jem’s inspirational value, Jem, most fans talked about the character they knew, original Jem, the creation that’s inspired them for an upwards of two decades, the imagined character that they know and love. Yet that adoration for Jem, old Jem, original Jem, doesn’t have any place in a feature that’s been “reinvented,” which explains why all those fawning videos have been edited into the film to appear as if they are addressed to the new Jem, who watches them all, teary-eyed and bolstered by the outpouring of love from “her” fans.
Instead of honoring the initial character by using material expressly solicited from her own fanbase, Chu’s film includes original Jem fans talking about how much they love the ’80s character, edited into the film so it appears that they’re taking about the new version — again, a character they had not met before filming said videos, because the movie that introduces her to the world didn’t exist at the time they were asked to make the videos.
They’re talking about their Jem, the original Jem, but “Jem and the Holograms” has retrofitted her biggest fans’ love into a cheap attempt to shoehorn their new version into a long-standing (and very dedicated) fanbase. Tell us why you love Jem, the real Jem, and we’ll use it to sell the knock-off version. They didn’t want your money, they wanted your creativity — but also your devotion.
In January, Jezebel’s The Muse blog spoke to “Jem and the Holograms” creator Christy Marx, who has not been involved with the creation of the new film. Although Marx takes a pragmatic approach to the situation, noting that the property is “franchise IP” that belongs solely to the company, that doesn’t change the fact that Marx is unhappy with the way she’s been excised from the latest incarnation of her own creation.
In a Facebook post from March of 2014, Marx wrote, “Many people wonder how I feel about it. I don’t think I can hide that I’m deeply unhappy about being shut out of the project. That no one in the entertainment arm of Hasbro wanted to talk to me, have me write for it, or at the very least consult on it. I wouldn’t be human if that failed to bother me.”
Marx, however, had lovely things to say about Chu, “I want to say good things about John [sic] Chu. He treated me with honesty and respect. He is sincere, passionate, and filled with a desire to make the best Jem movie he can make. He wants to reinvent Jem for a current audience. His take is somewhat different from the approach I wanted to take, but that just means it’s different, not that there’s anything wrong with it. I urge everyone to judge the merits of his work on the result and I hope he delivers us an excellent, truly outrageous movie.”
Chu’s adoration for the original property — so clear that even its own creator could see it and felt compelled to speak of it — isn’t apparent in the final feature, and the backhanded way he called on fellow fans to help make his film only adds to that sting.
Instead, it boils down to this: Tell us why you love Jem. Tell us how she’s inspired you and given you courage and made you want to be yourself. Then we’ll use it to sell a reinvented version of her, a watered-down character borne from YouTube and social media, a reimagining that didn’t even have enough creativity to inspire fans on its own merits.
When Indiewire asked producer Jason Blum about some of the negative reactions the film’s marketing was already receiving in July, Blum said, “I understand why people are concerned, but I’d just ask people to reserve judgment until they see the movie, and if then they feel let down, go have at it, and say whatever you want. But I feel very confident that the fans, once they’ve seen the movie, will not be disappointed.”
But it’s more than a disappointment; it’s an outrage.