Shy, musically-gifted teenage orphan Jericca (Aubrey Peeples) lives with her kindly Aunt Bailey ('80s icon Molly Ringwald) and, despite sharing a close-knit bond with her Kimbra (Stefanie Scott) and feisty foster-siblings Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) struggles to express her feelings in public. When social media savvy Kimbra uploads a viral video of Jerrica performing a song as her pink-wigged alter-ego 'Jem', she becomes an overnight sensation. Ruthless music mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) immediately signs Jem to her record label and, at Jerrica's insistence, brings her sisters along as a backing group called the Holograms. While Aunt Bailey struggles with financial problems back home, Jerrica discovers the path to global super-stardom is paved with difficulties.
As happened with the underrated Josie and the Pussycats (2001) the creative team behind this live-action reboot of a 'classic' Eighties cartoon show wound up alienating fans of the original Jem and the Holograms. Bad idea, since they were the only ones interested in seeing this in the first place. Jon M. Chu, director of Step Up 2 The Streets (2008) and Step Up 3D (2010) the two best entries in the long-running dance franchise, takes a genuinely creative approach to outlining this film's themes of teenage self-empowerment through art, music and social media, frequently inter-cutting key story beats with authentic YouTube footage of young musicians. Unfortunately the narrative too often slips his grasp, veering off on strange tangents that ignore the more emotionally-resonant themes established in Jericca's opening voice-over. Midway through a relatively grounded story the film introduces a musical robot called Synergy invented by Jerrica's father. It promptly steers things down a bizarre, unconvincing quasi-mystery-movie path.
Working from a script by Ryan Landels, Chu ditches the original cartoon's conceit of Jerrica as a billionaire quasi-superhero and strives instead for authenticity, hoping to strike a chord with a young audience. Yet the film struggles to transcend its disposable cartoon origins. The bulk of the plot is structured more or less like a season of American Idol. Our colour-coordinated girl band are plucked from obscurity, given makeovers and almost turned into pop marionettes, before turning the tables on ranting mogul Juliette Lewis: the one cast member seemingly aware she is acting in a live-action cartoon. Yet both the rabid fan-base that gathers around Jem and the Holograms and the rebellious, doing-it-our-way, girl power message prove less than convincing. Partly because the characters themselves exhibit little personality and their tunes seem somewhat generic. In fact the contrived third act schism between Jerrica and her band-mates over a well-intentioned mistake paints the latter as unreasonable, impulsive and insensitive. The third act then rushes their reconciliation to the point where that whole story beat seems meaningless.
Ryan Guzman, star of Step Up 4 - Miami Heat (2012), plays Jerrica's love interest. He melts her heart by acting smug, surly and churlish: dismissing the band as "no talent pop tarts who couldn't sing without auto-tune if their life depended on it." Upon eating his words he morphs into supportive boyfriend material. Along with squandering Brat Pack veteran Molly Ringwald in a practically non-existent role the film squeezes in a fair few quickfire cameos including the ubiquitous Dwayne Johnson, Chris Pratt and, most controversially, Ke$ha in a post-credits scene that reintroduces rival bad girl band the Misfits setting up an unlikely sequel. Zooey Deschanel-alike Aubrey Peeples has a fine singing voice. She performs convincingly but, despite the odd moment of mumbling introspection, comes across far too confident for a supposed introvert. At least Jerrica exhibits a personality which is more than can be said of her band-mates. Disney veterans Stefanie Scott and Hayley Kiyoko are capable talents (Kiyoko is great on TV's The Flash and headlined Disney's superior teen-misfits-form-a-pop-band tale: Lemonade Mouth (2011)) but the script gives them nothing to work with beyond tepid, too-cool-for-school posturing. Whether as an adaptation of a surprisingly beloved cartoon show, a modern treatise on social empowerment through youth culture or a nuts-and-bolts rags-to-riches rock and roll musical, Jem and the Holograms is a regrettable misfire. Interestingly the film's failure inspired the geek comedienne collective behind YouTube channel Chickbait to mount their own Kickstarter-funded fan film aimed at fans of the original.