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Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Music Monday: Jem and the Holograms, now and (mostly) then

Film Flam Flummox

Ever since its rather clandestine production was revealed last year, Jem and the Holograms, Universal's live action feature film version of the 1980s doll-inspired television animated series Jem, has been met with skepticism, if not outright scorn, by the show's rather devoted fan base. While this could easily be dismissed as standard fanboy (or, given the target audience for the property, fangirl) griping about cherished childhood icons not being adapted into new media with the most fastidious of fidelity, all outward impressions that have given off by official film synopses and, eventually, teasers and trailers only added increasing fuel to the flame war fire that the backlash was more than justified. The character of Jem, as rather creatively developed by (the rather brilliant) writer Christy Marx, was a still-revolutionary female protagonist in entertainment: the (literal) hologram-disguised secret rock star alter ego of twenty-something record label owner Jerrica Benton, who between her multitude of responsibilities as frontwoman of a chart-topping Bangles/Go Go's-esque all-female band and its very label head also ran a foster care facility for orphaned girls. For the 2015 version, however, director Jon M. Chu, producer Jason Blum, and their writing team have apparently not so much updated the character and concept as rewritten her entirely into kind of a Hannah Montana clone. The singer in disguise and her band conceit is all, based on one what has seen so far, apparently remains, shoehorned into a typical tale of a teen (!) and her friends hitting the road in pursuit of American Idol-esque pop star dreams.

But, as is the common tack one must adopt in this line of work, one must approach the upcoming film divorced from whatever pre-existing attachments (and, as one who grew up watching Jem in the '80s, I have many) to a decades-old property and give benefit of the doubt that the movie works on its own terms and goals. After all, there is precedent for Universal making a similar property work on the big screen with only mere "inspiration" from the source material: 2001's Josie and the Pussycats, which used the mystery-solving girl rock band of the 1960s comics and 1970s animated series as a springboard for a most unlikely and trenchant--and, 14 years from release, eerily prophetic--satire on the brainwashing power of pop music marketing on teens and young adults. Arguably even more powerful of all, however, was the soundtrack, a sublimely produced collection of original rock-inflected power-pop tunes, from ballads to hard-driving arena anthems, all characterized by terrific vocals and infectious hooks that still resonate a decade-plus removed from the turn-of-the-millennium era.

And much like with that film and the original Jem TV show, Jem and the Holograms could get an immeasurable boost in entertainment value with a kick-ass original soundtrack that stands the test of time. But if the recently released initial taste of Jem 2015's first single, "Youngblood," is any indication of the rest of the film's musical slate, perhaps not. One's mileage may vary, and, again, benefit of the doubt that maybe this song works in the greater film context and there are other tunes on the soundtrack more to my personal taste, but even accounting for 2015 vs. 1985 differences in the musical zeitgeist, this cookie-cutter, assembly-line tune sounds and feels like a missed opportunity. Take a look and listen for yourself:

Looking and listening back at the no less than 187 (!) tunes the songwriting team of composers Anne Bryant and Ford Kinder and lyricist Barry Harman penned expressly for the three seasons and 65 episodes of Jem from 1985 to 1988, it is rather astonishing how well they generally hold up as both narrative- and character-inspired and -driving book numbers and stand-alone pop tunes some 30 years later. More importantly, though, is how of a distinct musical identity they are beyond a general (and unavoidable) '80s-era pop sound, not to mention how they rather creatively push the boundaries of what is found and heard in kid-targeted entertainment. Below are eight personal favorite tunes performed by Jem and the Holograms (I have intentionally overlooked songs solely credited to the two antagonist bands, the Misfits and the Stingers, lest this piece run any longer than it already is) that illustrate my points about the television series' soundtrack--and what a tough act the 2015 movie Jem has to live up to.

"Only the Beginning": The aptly titled first in-episode musical performance by Jem and the Holograms has them throwing down the gauntlet against archrival group the Misfits and spectacularly setting the tone for what will be heard from them for the rest of the run. What initially strikes about this song, especially in this day and age, is how dense the instrumentation is, and how it's all done with live instruments and a bare minimum of electronic enhancement--listen to that thumping bass line and the punctuating horns. The instrumentation is one of the three defining elements of Bryant and Kinder's Jem sound, the other two being the lush background harmonies by the Holograms (in reality, session background singers who also pulled double duty as background on the Misfits' tracks) and the melodic, elastic lead vocals of the great Britta Phillips (who has gone on to have a successful and enduring music career in her own right, including serving as composer for a number of Noah Baumbach pictures) as the singing voice of Jem. "Music in the air/News is in the making/Music in the air/Something big is breaking" indeed.

"Truly Outrageous": If anyone knows anything about the original Jem series, it's its first opening theme song, which, ironically, was used on far fewer episodes than its second, considerably less memorable theme song. It's a testament to the strength of the work put in by Bryant, Kinder, and Harman that they were able to reconfigure the theme song into a "single version" that stands well on its own as a catchy pop confection. While retaining the indelible "Truly, truly outrageous/Truly, truly, truly outrageous" hook, Bryant and Kinder slowed down the tempo a tad to a more laid back, bassline- and funk guitar-driven groove, with Harman crafting new, more universal, less "TV theme song" lyrics, and Phillips, ably supported by the Holograms' background harmonies, delivering a sultry vocal that organically builds to an ecstatic wail by song's end.

"Who Is He Kissing?": Marx's writing of the Jem series was always far more sophisticated than the '80s toy tie-in cartoon norm--check out her extensive story bible published in its entirety on the DVD set--and the maturity boldly shows up in the second line of Harman's lyrics for this song: "Is he making love to a fantasy?"--when the hell else has the term "making love" ever managed to slip into what is ostensibly a kids' cartoon series, and one aimed at pure, precious little girls, no less?! Beyond that rather stunning bit of envelope-pushing, this song--a terrific showcase for the darker, moodier colors of both Bryant and Kinder's composing and Phillips's vocals--exemplifies how the Jem TV series' songs strongly supported as well as further fleshed out the storylines and characters: in this case, the love triangle between real Jerrica, fake Jem, and the ever-befuddled man in the middle, Rio.

"Show Me the Way": This uptempo tune was actually used in two different episodes during the run, one in first season and one in the second, and it's easy to hear why, from the catchy hook to the rather intense workout Phillips's vocal range is given, thanks to a rather epic key change for the final stretch, which is another hallmark of Bryant and Kinder's distinctive Jem sound.

"Click-Clash": Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits had a number of duets throughout the series' run--or, more appropriately, "duels," as this, the first and best one. This isn't so much a musical collaboration than a musical catfight, and what a catchily cacophonous one it is, vividly delieating the two rival groups' constrasting, clashing styles and sounds, with Phillips and Ellen Bernfeld, the singing voice of Misfits leader Pizzazz, tearing into the song and each other with their own individual senses of diva sass. Feisty, frenetic, fabulous fun from beginning to end.

"Come On In, the Water's Fine": Of all the songs in the Jem canon, this song is probably the most adaptable into a "real world" commercial pop music single, even at its Jem-standard brevity of 90 seconds. In such a short time, Bryant, Kinder, and Harman manage to organically squeeze in a full intro, two verse-chorus cycles, and a middle eight; and the distinct rock edge to the tune, driven by one hard-driving guitar, is less '80s and more timeless. But perhaps the most "real world" quality to the whole song--that once again speaks to the sophistication of the series' writing as a whole--is Harman's lyrics, which like most pop songs then and now is one long, cleverly wink-wink double entendre. Phillips, letting rip with a sexy, husky rasp she rarely gets to display in other Jem songs, makes it crystal clear that she and her bandmates aren't exactly singing about going for a swim here.

"Love Is Here": By and large, Jem and the Holograms' ballads were the weakest and most forgettable songs in their oeuvre, and Bryant, Kinder, and Harman often felt like they were playing to the preconceived notions of songwriting for a kids' TV cartoon: sappy and saccharinely sentimental in both melody and lyric alike. There are, however, two notable exceptions. First is this touching tune, featuring a gorgeously layered arrangement for the lead and background vocals, which nicely complement Harman's evocative lyrics. The big star of this tune, as with many, is Phillips, who begins the tune with an appropriately gentle, soothing croon before she builds to the upper reaches of her register, completely selling the ultimately exhilarating emotion of the entire enterprise.

"When It's Only Me and the Music": As mentioned above, Jem and the Holograms' slow songs are mostly far less memorable than their uptempo work, so it's more than a little ironic that what is perhaps their most beloved song is this ballad, which has more than a few fan cover versions and tributes on YouTube. Everyone, from composers Bryant and Kinder and lyricist Harman to the musicians, background singers, and the incomparable Phillips are in top form here, with the characteristically dense yet simple instrumentation, poetic lyrics, and emotive vocals transporting the listener on a journey not unlike the beautifully surreal and transcendent (to use a Bollywood term) picturization crafted by the animators.

Hopefully, the live action Jem and the Holograms film will prove to be just as accomplished musically as its source material when the film finally reveals itself in its entirety in cinemas nationwide on Friday, October 23, from Universal Pictures.

"Rockin' Romance" Jem doll on reception desk in the lobby of
Blumhouse Productions offices, taken September 8, 2015

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