Whenever the great girl groups of the rock and roll era are discussed, one animated band always seems to get shortchanged. Fans of flesh and blood combos can argue all they want for the Go-Gos superiority or the Bangles, but when it comes to the queens of pen and ink performance, no one can hold a hand drawn candle to the collection of creative musicians known as Jem and the Holograms. About as pre-fab as the Monkees, this half-hour hit parade could have been a crass business bungle. After all, it was based on a line of dolls from Hasbro and initially conceived mainly as a crass commercial tie in. But Jem, Kimber, Aja and Shana managed to figured out a way - through some very talented people behind the scenes - to transcend their demographically accurate marketing strategy and become something of an anomaly in the standard Madison Avenue kid's show carnival. Instead of being hopelessly dated and directly linked to its toy line, Jem today remains a wonderfully evocative and energetically entertaining show that captures a place and an era that has all but vanished from the pop culture scene. Nothing exemplifies the carefree clash of fashion and fame better than this animated wonder featuring the first ladies of girl power.
When her father dies, Jerrica Benton is left with a lot of responsibilities. He owned half of the popular Starlight Music record label. He also ran Starlight House, a home for orphaned and foster girls. Jerrica must now manage both businesses and it's not easy. On the home front, the girls are a handful, demanding time and attention. And the corrupt co-owner of Starlight Music, Eric Raymond, will stop at nothing to keep Jerrica and her interests in check. When Ms. Benton learns that The Misfits, an all-girl group of abrasive bitches is Eric' s main priority, she decides to fight fire with fire. With the help of one of her late father's inventions, a holographic entertainment program named Synergy, Jerrica becomes rock icon Jem, and her fellow co-workers at the halfway house - sister Kimber and friends Aja and Shana - become her back up band, the Holograms. Acting as their manager is longtime pal and Jerrica's current boyfriend, Rio. Only Jerrica and her friends know that she and Jem are one in the same. The rest of the world only sees her computerized laser disguise. Synergy can also project holograms wherever and whenever Jerrica needs them.
The individual episodes offered on the 11 DVDs in the Box Set are as follows:
Disc 1: Season One -The Beginning/ Disaster (aka Setbacks)/ Kimber's Rebellion/ Frame-Up/ Battle of the Bands/ Starbright 1: Falling Star/ Starbright 2: Colliding Stars
Disc 2: Season One (Cont.) - Starbright 3: Rising Star/ The World Hunger Shindig/
Adventures in China/ Last Resorts/ In Stitches/ The Music Awards 1
Disc 3: Season One (Cont.) - The Music Awards 2/ The Rock Fashion Book/ Broadway Magic/ In Search of the Stolen Album/ Hot Time in Hawaii/ The Princess and the Singer/ Island of Deception
Disc 4: Season One (Cont.) - Old Meets News/ Intrigue at the Indy 500/ The Jem Jam 1/ The Jem Jam 2/ Culture Clash/ Glitter and Gold
Disc 5: Season Two - The Talent Search, Part 1/ The Talent Search Part 2/ Scandal/ One Jem Too Many/ The Bands Break Up/ The Fan/ Father's Day
Disc 6: Season Two (Cont.) - The Treasure Hunt/ Aztec Enchantment/ Music is Magic/ The Jazz Player/ Danse Time/ Alone Again
Disc 7: Season Two (Cont.) - Roxy Rumbles/ KJEM/ Trick or Techrat/ The Presidential Dilemma/ Rock 'N' Roll Express/ Mardi Gras/ The Middle of Nowhere
Disc 8: Season Two (Cont.) - Renaissance Woman/ Journey to Shangri-La/ Journey Through Time/ Out of the Past/ Hollywood Jem Part 1: For Your Consideration.../ Hollywood Jem Part 2: And the Winner Is...
Disc 9: Season Three - The Stingers Hit Town Part 1/ The Stingers Hit Town Part 2/ Beauty and the Rock Promoter/ Homeland, Heartland/ Midsummer Night's Madness/ Riot's Hope/ Straight from the Heart
Disc 10: Season Three (Cont.) - That Old Houdini Magic/ A Change of Heart/ Britrock/ The Day the Music Died/ Video Wars/ A Father Should Be...
Disc 11: Bonus Features
Jem is a lot like cartoon crack: you know it can't possibly be good for you, but once you've sampled some of its sugary charms, you instantly crave more and would sell your soul to obtain it. Now, with its foundation in the product placement ideal of children's toy manufacturers, Jem should really be pathetic. Instead, it's a fantastic fantasy of utter wish fulfillment for girls with just enough action and intrigue (along with hot animated babes) to keep the boys (and some middle aged men) interested. So even with its often atrocious animation, occasionally shrill vocal gymnastics and hyper-unrealistic plot developments, Jem is a show befitting its bejeweled name. For some reason, all the flaws and faults in character modeling, the multiple cliffhanger plotting and a catalog of songs that make The Partridge Family seem edgy just can't undermine the show's special vibe. Some would argue that the reason the series works is because it's crafted to click instantly with its target audience, make a minimal impact and then dissipate quickly. It's just an animated infomercial for Hasbro's attempt to undermine Barbie. But Jem is really much more than this.
The hope and happiness that Jem/Jerrica and her band mates feel - the overriding optimism that, even through the toughest times, they will somehow persevere - is outrageously contagious. And before you know it, you are caught up in their spirit of support and friendship and you're whisked away on clouds of cartoon cleverness. In other ways, Jem is just like those great old-fashioned serials from cinemas past, using the cliffhanger device and the deviousness of Eric Raymond, Clash and The Misfits to turn up the suspense. And then there is the music. Jem is jam packed with the basics of top of the pops rock that, somehow, explains every irritating tween act on the market today. But unlike today's AOR awfulness, the tunes by Jem and the Holograms (and for the most part, the music of the Misfits) are absolutely delightful and catchy as Hell. Sure, they are not three minute masterpieces, but tunes like "She's Got the Power", "She Makes an Impression", "Back in Shape" and "Truly Outrageous" capture the character and the mood of the show in short, sweet sonic bliss.
Unfortunately, Jem would go from peachy to preachy as it went on, with an added emphasis on educational and hot button issues. With ratings popularity came a higher profile, and once it was a big fat hit, the sweet smack of reality forced the maker's hand. Jem would no longer center solely around living out wild, freedom-based fantasies amongst the jet-set scenario of the world of rock. No, fame would come with the price of responsibility and as a result, the cartoon was packed with calling-card controversy and unnecessary morals. For every new adventure there is a perilous path riddled with envy, jealousy, competition and disappointment. Jem and her gals still ride a rather charmed chariot throughout most of the misery (pain brushes up against them but never lingers long; even when the odds seem destined to defeat them, the Holograms pull out a 'W' in the end), but now there is a depth to the predicaments which make them seem more formidable, more unfixable.
Toward the end, we also see the introduction of two new band members, one for each of our competing pop combos. On the side of the sinister is Jetta, a black-haired harpie with the salty tongue of a cockney sailor and the disposition of a pissed-off python. This ballsy Brit is constantly bragging and butting her way into everyone's business, usually with disastrous results. Centered on sunshine and smiles is Raya, a humble, intensely shy Hispanic gal (got to love those PC bows to multi-cultural diversity) who only comes out of her shell when she's drumming. Indeed, as it slinked its way through a highly uneven final season, the spark that set the original shows alight dimmed ever so slightly. We got the new (annoying) band, The Stingers, as well as a rival for Rio, Riot. Romance ruled and contrivance reigned. Toward the end, Starlight was literally up for grabs and Jerrica's loyalties were clearly questioned. This is not the Jem we grew to love and support. Instead, it's the result of too much success and too much emphasis on making sure the intended audience walked away understanding important lessons, not the fun of a frothy, frilly escape. When it began, Jem was genius. Toward the end, it became a victim of its own vivacious spirit.
The 1.33:1 full frame image looks nearly brand new and this has its own positive and negative attributes. On the plus side, the images are vibrant and the animation retains a nice balance between color and contrast. On the down side, Jem was not some multi-million dollar hand drawn wonder and the shortcuts and pathetic pen and ink are only highlighted by how good the picture is. True, Jem never strived to be anything other than a vibrant bit of kid-vid entertainment, but DVD shows how completely defeatist that dogma can look onscreen.
In a word - OUTRAGEOUS! Jem has been remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1 (the original Dolby Digital Stereo is intact as well) and it sounds incredibly. As a show about rock and roll, the aural presentation is everything and the power pop of all the bands here is captured in crystal clarity and sonic superiority. As for the dialogue and effects, everything is handled in a professional - if not very channel challenging - manner.
Now, here's some bad news. When originally released by Rhino, several of the episodes in each box set had commentary tracks from writer/executive story editor Christy Marx. Her previous insights into how the show was made and the characters created were excellent. Also, later episodes had alternate narrative tracks from others involved that seem to be missing here. In their place appears to be a retrospective documentary which features cast and crew interviews. It's enlightening and quite enjoyable. Season 1 and 2 also have video jukebox options, which lets you go right to your favorite songs. It's the eleventh disc which contains 99% of the goodies, the aforementioned show overview included. Here you will find more Q&As, fan shout outs, toy commercial tie-ins, and animated storyboards. There is also some DVD-Rom content.
There is really no denying it: Jem is still a great show...flawed, but great. From its initial incarnation up and through its corporate mandated changes, it found a way to match music to message without every once skimping on character or narrative. It discovered how to incorporate and comment on the emergence of rock video (and the surrounding culture) while proving that the song, not the visuals, was the key, crucial element. Rarely has such a show spoken to so many across such a wide demographic. A few more extras and this would have been a must-own box set. As it stands, Shout! Factory has given fans and newcomers a Highly Recommended reason to rejoice. Whether it's truly outrageous or deadly serious, Jem is a vibrant, energetic series about believing in yourself and others. Owning the entire original series run makes the mythos all the sweeter.
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