The 1980s saw the regulations about children’s programming relaxed, allowing toylines to have shows. These shows, mostly cartoons, were meant as advertising for the toys. Hasbro took advantage of the situation and had several animated series based on their toylines, with Transformers airing in 1984 followed by G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms in 1985*. However, no one informed Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions, the companies behind the series, that the shows were meant to be just advertising. Each series left an impact on its viewers.
With Jem, Hasbro entered a doll market dominated by Mattel. To try to gain an edge, The Jem dolls took their cues from MTV and singers like Cyndi Lauper. The first of the dolls, featuring Jem/Jerrica, her sister Kimber, her foster sisters Aja and Shana, the rival Misfits, and Jerrica’s love interest Rio. Most of the dolls came with audio cassettes featuring four songs, two by Jem and the Holograms, two by the Misfits. The Jem cartoon came out in 1985, leading the way for the dolls in 1986. Mattel, though, released the “Barbie and the Rockers” line the same year, also taking advantage of the popularity of MTV. Rocker Barbie also came with audio cassettes, though with far fewer songs.
For Jem, Marvel and Sunbow recruited Christy Marx, who was already working for them on the G.I. Joe cartoon. Marx took the ideas that the doll designer had – two rival all-girl bands, the boyfriend, and Synergy, the holographic avatar of a supercomputer – and brought the concepts together to create Jem, the Holograms, Rio, and the Misfits. The series begins with Jerrica Benton inheriting half of her father’s company, the Starlight Music label. The other half, though, went to Eric Raymond, a scheming corrupt businessman out to control all of Starlight. The music label also supports Starlight Foundation, a charity funding a foster home for girls. Naturally, Eric wants to shut down the Foundation. Jerrica’s father, though, knew what sort of person Eric was and built a supercomputer, Synergy, to help Jerrica. With Synergy’s help, through the “Jemstar” earrings and the phrase, “Showtime, Synergy,” Jerrica becomes Jem.
Eric has his own girl band to counter Jem and the Holograms. The Misfits consist of Pizazz, Roxy, and Stormer, who all work to beat out the Holograms, by hook or by crook. While the Misfits are the Holograms main antagonists, it is Eric who is the villain. That said, the views of Eric and Pizazz don’t necessarily reflect the view of the rest of the Misfits. Stormer and Kimber, in one episode, become friends, bonding over a feeling of neglect by their respective bandmates. The friendship continues beyond that episode. Eric also has a henchman, Zipper, to do the heavy lifting and dirty work that the businessman wouldn’t sully his hands with.
Naturally, there is a love interest, Rio. The stage manager for the Holograms, Jerrica and Rio have a complex relationship. The course of true love never did run smooth, and the course of the love between Jerrica and Rio takes an added twist when Rio develops a crush on Jem. Jerrica is hesitant to tell Rio the truth, that she is Jem, because Rio has an odd aversion to secrecy. While love triangles involving superheroes and secret IDs is known, Jem gender-flipped the concept. Adding to the love triangle is Pizazz, who has a crush on Rio.
Jem and the Holograms became the top rated syndicated cartoon in the US. Over 150 songs were written and performed on the show, a third making it on to the cassettes sold with the dolls. In comparison, Barbie and the Rockers had four songs, total. Jem aired for three seasons and ended only because the doll line was discontinued. The Jem dolls, while popular, couldn’t compete with the Barbie behemoth, and the line was discontinued in 1987. Twenty-seven dolls were released over the short run. As a doll, Jem couldn’t overcome the name recognition Barbie had. Thanks to the cartoon, though, the name Jem permeated pop culture, leading to a DVD release and a re-airing of the series in 2011. In 2012, Integrity Toys licensed Jem for a collector’s edition line of dolls, with over twenty-five dolls now released. IDW picked up the comic license in 2015 for a modern take on the characters.
With the resurgence of Jem as a property, Hasbro, through its fill studio, Allspark Productions, and Universal brought the doll to the big screen as a live-action movie. The movie remained in theatres for two weeks before being pulled from distribution, grossing just $2 million on a $5 million budget. Reviews were expecting a different movie than what was released. What happened?
The Jem and the Holograms film opens with Jerrica Benton (played by Aubrey Peeples) narrating into a vlog about the nature of secret identities and public personae and giving a few details about her background. After her father (Barnaby Carpenter) died, Jerrica and her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) were sent to live with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald), who had already taken in two other fosters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). Jerrica was close to her father, helping him in the garage as he tinkered with various things and learning out to play guitar from him. Kimber is the more outgoing of the two, and is constantly vlogging to YouTube. Jerrica, though, is more reclusive. When she discovers that her aunt only has thirty days to to pay the mortgage on her house, Jerrica tries to record a song about her feelings, but finds that she has to use a persona and pseudonym, Jem, to do so. Even after recording the video, she tries to delete it but has problems. Jerrica hands the camera to Kimber, who, instead of deleting the video, listens to it then uploads it publically.
The video goes viral, becoming even more popular than the waterskiing squirrel. Considering the number of musicians who have careers thanks to viral videos, it’s not unbelievable. The video’s popularity gets the attention of Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), the owner and CEO of Starlight Productions. Erica sends an email to the mysterious Jem, offering a contract deal. Jerrica pushes to have her sisters included on the deal, and Erica relents. Erica arrives at home to pick up her new stars and whisk them to Los Angeles. Jerrica, in her packing, brings along the last items her father gave her, a pair of pink star earrings and a half-finished robot, 51N3RG-Y, or Synergy. As the girls arrive in LA, Synergy, which has never worked, begins to power up.
The girls go through a process to get them ready for stardom, including hair, make-up, and wardrobe. Erica takes the star earrings from Jerrica, calling them a holdover from the 80s. Jerrica finds a way to hide herself as Jem for performances. Erica starts her marketing campaign as the girls settle in at Starlight’s manor. Jerrica meets Rio, the band’s manager and chief cat wrangler, and some sparks fly as Rio lays down the rules. That night, Synergy is up to full power, glowing under a discard sheet. The girls, unsure what is happening, uncover the robot, which then displays a map with coordinates as a hologram. Despite their midnight curfew, the girls leave the house, “borrowing” Rio’s truck to go to the coordinates. Jerrica recognizes where they are; she and her father had gone to the pier many times before he passed away. She finds one of the pieces missing from Synergy, who then displays another map coordinate, one for a nightclub that showcases hot acts.
Before the girls can leave, a flashlight shines on them. A male voice starts telling them about the laws they have broken, including breaking and entering and being out after their midnight curfew. Rio steps forward so they can see him and explains just how he followed them and that they tripped a silent alarm. He helps the girls escape. Jerrica explains why they were on the pier and wonders how they’ll ever get to the nightclub. She also discovers that Rio is Erica’s son.
In the morning, Erica Raymond announces that the mysterious Jem will make an appearance at that nightclub for her the first live performance. Jerrica and her sisters prepare for the night. The concert goes well until a blackout hits the club mid-song. Thinking fast, Jerrica, as Jem, gets the club goers to light the stage using their smartphone flashlights. She spots a familiar guitar and, as Aja and Shana get the club goers to clap and stomp a beat, she continues the song acoustically. After the concert, Jerrica inspects the guitar and confirms it is her father’s. Inside, there is another part for Synergy.
The day after, Bailey gets in touch with Jerrica to tell her that the house will be going up for auction in several days. Jerrica goes to Erica to ask for an advance. Erica agrees, with one condition – Jem performs alone, not with a band. In a tough spot, Jerrica agrees. Her sisters overhear the last part and are understandably upset. Jerrica tries to explain but the girls won’t listen. Jem’s next appearance is as a solo artist, but Jerrica isn’t happy about what happened. Upset, she wanders through LA and winds up at her old home. Through a window, she sees a young family enjoying each other’s company, further accentuating Jerrica’s feeling of being alone. To her surprise, Kimber arrives, followed by Aja and Shana. They’re still upset about what Jerrica did, but understand why. Rio also arrives, since he had to drive the girls there, and helps Jerrica make the connection to what the last pieces of Synergy are, the earrings. The earrings that are locked up by Erica.
Jerrica and Rio head to Starlight after first getting his mother’s car from Brad the valet, who only provides the keys if Rio can get his mother to listen to his demo CD. Rio, using the darkness of the night and one of Erica’s hats, gets by security in the car with Jerrica in the trunk. Kimber, Aja, and Shana distract the guards by pretending to be Jem fangirls and getting the guards to take their photos so that Jerrica and Rio can get into the building. In Erica’s office, Rio tries guessing the code for her safe. When Jerrica suggests entering what is most important to her, Rio types in Erica’s full name. The safe opens. Jerrica retrieves her earrings and Rio retrieves a legal notice addressed to him.
Erica discovers that Jerrica is up to something when she tries to get her car from Brad. With some encouragement from Zipper, Brad confesses to what happened. Erica and Zipper rush back to Starlight and review the security footage. She orders security to seal the exits and detain Jerrica and Rio. Rio delays Erica by playing Brad’s demo CD**, piping it to a conference room. On the ground floor, Jerrica puts on her wig to become Jem. Security, unaware of her dual identity, happily let her leave.
Safe, Jerrica places the earrings together. They start glowing with a purple light before she adds them to Synergy. The robot reacts, leaning back to project a hologram of her father. He explains why he created Synergy and why he had her go on a scavenger hunt.
The big concert arrives. Jerrica is determined that she goes out on stage with her sisters. All of them are ready, and Bailey arrives to watch the show now that the house is safe. Erica arrives backstage. She demands that only Jem go out, not the others. Rio, though, exercises the clause in his father’s will that states that he takes over Starlight when he is ready, and he is ready. Zipper escorts Erica out of the building and the girls take the stage. During the concert, an editor from Rolling Stone (Christy Marx) asks Rio about the band’s name so she can feature them on the front cover. He calls them “Jem and the Holograms”.
As the credits roll, a sequel hook comes up. Erica, thoroughly disgraced and humiliated, has tracked down one of her former acts. The group, understandably, isn’t interested, having been used and tossed away by Erica once before. Erica, though, mentions that Rio is in love with Jem, perking the interest of the band’s leader. Pizazz (Kesha) comes out and declares, “Our music is better. We’re gonna get her,” then leads Erica into the Misfits’ trailer.
The Jem cartoon was a product of the Eighties, with all the sensibilities of the time. The Jem movie is a product of the Teens, and also reflects the era. The movie integrates social media into the narrative. The film’s website allowed fans to upload audition videos, some of which got into the movie. The film also delves into the impact a star can have on the lives of fans. Jem’s music calls out to people to be themselves, even if Jem is just Jerrica’s public persona.
The main problem the movie has is not being the cartoon. The expectations were badly handled. Older fans saw that it wasn’t going to be the cartoon and stayed away, and since the older fans are the ones to bring the target audience to the movie, the film just didn’t perform at the box office. There is too much in the movie that ties into what has been established for Jem for the film to be generic. Producer John M. Chu made the decision to go a different route than the cartoon, acknowledging its existance and not wanting comparisons. Problem there is that comparisons would still be made. Looking at just the dolls, ignoring for the moment the classic cartoon series, the movies does work as an adaptation. Audiences were expecting the cartoon, though. As Lost in Translation has seen before, an adapation became the definitive work. The animated Jem joins the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman. In Jem‘s case, this was caused by the marketing of the dolls using the cartoon.
The Jem movie isn’t a bad one. It is far better than its budget would suggest. The girls have an onscreen chemistry that helps sell the characters as sisters. Juliette Lewis as Erica Raymond brings in a veneer of respectability over the character’s greed and sleeze. The lack of Misfits isn’t a problem; in the cartoon, Eric was the mastermind, using the band for his ends. The best way to view the film is as an alternate universe Jem.
* My Little Pony had specials in 1984 and 1985, but wasn’t a series until 1986.
** Brad’s music is essentially death metal on cello and is decent enough, though not something Erica would bother with.