A campy cartoon encapsulating ‘80s excess transforms into an earnest live-action ode to the navel-gazing YouTube generation in “Jem and the Holograms.” Considerably less fun than any paper-thin “Star Is Born” ripoff has any right to be, this low-budget collaboration between “Step Up” sequel director Jon M. Chu, horror producer Jason Blum and Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun exists only because of nostalgia for the animated source material. And yet the film seems inexplicably embarrassed by its roots, instead serving up half-baked and self-consciously contemporary drama that no one in the sure-to-be minimal theatrical audience will remember quite so fondly some 30 years on.
Similarities between the live-action and animated “Jem” pretty much begin and end with character names, but both revolve around talented young singer Jerrica Benton (played here by Aubrey Peeples), who becomes a pop superstar under the stage name Jem. In the film, YouTube is her ticket to success when social media-savvy younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) secretly uploads an acoustic performance Jerrica/Jem filmed in her bedroom and the clip immediately goes viral.
Shrouded in a layer of secrecy uncommon in the “share it all” age, Jem’s debut performance attracts the attention of powerful music mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), who whisks Jerrica away from her hardworking Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and promises the world. Jerrica insists on bringing along Kimber and their interchangeable foster sisters, Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), as her backing band, and Erica places them all under the watchful eye of her dutiful son, Rio (Ryan Guzman).
As Erica schemes to extract Jerrica from her sisters so Jem can become a proper solo star, Jerrica falls for Rio and tries to ensure that Aunt Bailey won’t lose her house or her business. She also slowly pieces together a puzzle left behind by her late father in the form of a pint-sized robot called Synergy. That’s about all the film offers in terms of plot, even as the running time pushes toward an excruciating, and borderline inexcusable, two hours.
Perhaps a few killer musical numbers would’ve helped move things along — and explain how exactly Jem becomes such a global sensation that she’s deluged with virtual messages professing that her music saves lives and empowers an army of fans — but even Jem’s performances are limited to just a handful of scenes. And whether due to budgetary limitations or simple failure of imagination, they’re remarkably low-energy affairs staged in front of what seems like dozens of extras (standing in for Jem’s supposed thousands of fans).
It’s no wonder the cartoon’s absurdly catchy theme song, “Truly Outrageous,” is never heard here (outside of a few wink-wink lines of dialogue spoken by Guzman). There’s nothing “outrageous” about Chu’s painfully pedestrian work. He seems to be striving for the forced-inspirational tone of his dual Bieber documentaries “Never Say Never” and “Believe,” but those films played off a pre-existing persona with a carefully crafted image to sell. It turns out it’s much more difficult to manufacture a faux-superstar from scratch. As much as Jerrica drones on about finding her authentic self through her music, the movie never allows her a moment that feels remotely real.
Against all odds, “Nashville” series regular Peeples keeps the film watchable, delivering a capable star turn with enough flashes of soul to belie the script’s artifice and credible pop vocals to boot. Towering over a lackluster supporting cast, the always welcome Lewis imbues a nonsensical bitch-on-wheels caricature with offbeat line readings and live-wire energy.
A generally unremarkable tech package at least provides a modest showcase for costume designer Soyon An, makeup head Mary Klimek and hairstylist Vanessa Price, who come the closest to channeling the vibrant spirit of the “Jem” cartoons that originally made fans fall in love.