Feature: Jem and the Holograms

As a small-town girl catapults from underground video sensation to global superstar, she and her three sisters begin a journey of discovering that some talents are too special to keep hidden.

The idea of reinventing Jerrica and her sisters for the big screen has been a longtime passion project of director Jon M. Chu, who has had a deep attachment to Jem and the Holograms since he was a child.

He and his producers agreed that their 2015 Jem and the Holograms would honour the same underlying messages as the ’80s series, one of female empowerment, honesty and integrity-along with fashion and great music-but it would also be embraced by a new generation. To accomplish the above – while still deeply respecting the diehard fans who have turned the quartet of this iconic property into pop-culture icons – was Chu’s uncompromising mission.

Alongside Chu’s frequent collaborator, music producer Scooter Braun, excitement began building for creating a live-action, big-screen adventure for one of the most iconoclastic properties of the ’80s. All involved believed that the timing was right and these were the right filmmakers to reimagine a Jem for a new generation.

Although Chu wouldn’t know it until years later, his life’s work had been building up to helming a movie based on the adventures of Kimber, Aja, Shana and Jerrica (aka Jem). His first two feature films, Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, gave him the know-how to shoot complex musical, dance and action sequences, while his helming of Justin Bieber’s two hit documentaries, Never Say Never and Believe, taught him the ins and outs of making the behind-the-scenes of the music industry accessible and exciting.

The youngest of five children who, admittedly and proudly, was “always in front of the television,” Chu has fond memories of the block of 1980s Hasbro cartoons, which included G.I. Joe, Transformers and Jem and the Holograms. He recounts: “My sisters loved Jem, and although I would never admit it to my guy friends back then, I, of course, loved it and would play with all of the toys.”

Chu explains just what was so riveting about the series: “Jem was unlike anything on TV. At the time, I didn’t know what I loved about it other than it was fun and there was music; it was a superhero story where I could use my imagination and play alongside my toys. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much joy the show brought me and that it was a fearless cartoon about female empowerment. The essence of the show was being true to your identity and nurturing your free expression-whether that is through music, art, dance or something else. Jem and the Holograms were true defenders of that idea.”

Chu knew that it wouldn’t be easy to take a cartoon as iconic as Jem and the Holograms and translate it into a live-action feature for a new generation. He reflects: “There has to be a shift when you change the medium, and we didn’t want to compete with the cartoon. There is a change of audience expectations in terms of how they follow stories. Our biggest challenge was on how to ground this. As well, I felt like in order to engage a new audience, we needed to make the film contemporary without losing the essence of this legendary cartoon. It is fearless in its storytelling.”

To accomplish this task, the director and his fellow producers turned to Ryan Landels, with whom Chu has collaborated since 2010, when they worked together on the web series The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. The producers asked him to pen the screenplay as an origin story. Shares Chu: “Ryan and his wife are huge fans of Jem, which is a big reason we had him come on board and start to develop the idea.” According to the director, the team constantly looked for ways to pay respect to the original series. “There are throwbacks throughout, whether it is favourite lines or inclusion of the titles of songs that Jem sang. We’ve even reinvented the starburst earrings to look as if the original cartoon was based on a real-life story. Even if you know nothing about Jem, you’ll fall in love with what our Jem represents.”

Chu’s deft navigation of Jem and the Holograms’ development struck his fellow producers, who gravitated toward the idea that Landel and Chu wanted to fold hard-core Jem fans into the film itself. Whether in its use of clips of fans singing, telling their story about how Jem has affected them or showcasing their signature talent, the film pays homage to those whose lifelong creative outlets are all inspired by Jem.

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