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Britta Phillips

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Britta Phillips on Jem, the Live-Action Movie, and Her ’80s Girl-Band Film With Julia Roberts and Justine Bateman

Throwing Josie and the Pussycats caution to the wind, John M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity), and Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, are taking the ’80s music cartoon Jem to the big screen. (If your memories of the pink-haired powerhouse need some jogging, here’s a refresher.) Britta Phillips, of Luna and Dean & Britta fame, provided Jem’s original singing voice. She was just 20 when she recorded many of the 180-some songs written for the series, and she’s still a fan. She heard about the movie plans with the rest of the world yesterday and doesn’t think it’s necessarily a horrible idea! Vulture rang up Phillips this morning, just as she was perusing the official JemTheMovie.com site, to reminisce (she’s Team Misfits, of course) and discuss how these three dudes could make a live-action Jem good. Turns out Phillips knows all about what it’s like to make the bad version of a girl-band movie.

Big news yesterday!
Yeah! A couple people left me some messages on Facebook that were like, “How do you feel about G.I. Joe directing the Jem movie?” Whatever. It’s fine with me. People have been talking about making a Jem movie for the past few years. 

So you still hear from fans?
Oh, yeah. The first time I was approached I guess was about the time when everyone who watched it was old enough to go to a bar. [Laughs.] When I did the cartoon, I figured this was something for little kids. I didn’t even think about having fans, or having them grow up and meeting me and remembering. There seems to be a crossover, too, which is funny, because I play indie rock now. Sometimes I get fans of both that and Jem, and it’s like, wow, okay, that’s cool.

More than 180 songs were recorded during the series’ 65 episodes. What do you remember about that time?
It was a trip. I had just moved to New York. Singing is what I wanted to do and my dad was a session player. He found out they were looking for a young, rock-singer type, and he gave them my demo. I went in to audition and they used that audition recording as the theme song. I was like, “Wait, I wanna do it again!” I thought if I got the job, I’d be able to do it “for real.” I remember going in to record every couple weeks. They’d tell me what the episode was about and I’d get into character. They made me sing incredibly high.

Why did they end up switching the original “Truly Outrageous” theme to “Jem Girls,” which is not as good?
I know! That sounded more like a jingle to me than an actual song. Some of the songs on the show are complex, so I didn’t really like the new theme song either. Maybe it was easier for little girls to sing that one? I don’t know.

There was never a soundtrack for the show, but the original theme was included with the Jem dolls and reportedly sold 3 million copies that way.
It’s crazy. It would never happen today. Sales are pretty dismal today. You know what, though? The doll failed, and it failed because it was bigger than Barbie. Parents didn’t wanna buy two sizes of clothes for the dolls. That’s what I heard anyway, because the show was really popular.

Another thing that sucks about the second theme: The Misfits aren’t even in it. 
Everybody loves the Misfits.

I read an interview the show’s lyricist did, and he was asked which band he preferred writing songs for, Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits. He said, “The Misfits, definitely!
It’s so much easier to write songs about being mean or that are a bummer than happy good girl songs, for sure.

The Misfits were real villains, too. In the first episode, they run Jerrica off the road and almost off a cliff.
They were criminals! [Laughs.] Fun criminals, but totally criminals.

Do you still remember the songs?
I remember tons. In fact, I have most of them. People have sent them to me over the years. I can still sing some of them from memory.

I was relistening and some of them are very catchy.
I went to a Jem Con a few years ago, and I definitely was not going to sing anything there, but once I got there and had a couple of drinks … I mean, everyone was so excited about the idea that I kind of just got swept away by it and wound up singing. I sang “She’s Got the Power” and I think “Like a Dream.” Those are pretty good.

Jem’s story is pretty fraught. She runs a foster home and a record label, has a secret identity, and music rivals are constantly trying to kill — literally kill — her band ...
It was crazy. I was 20 at the time, and I remember thinking, This is for kids? I was surprised they were putting in stuff like the boyfriend dating both Jerrica and Jem, and Jerrica getting jealous of herself. It’s really funny.  

And then there’s Synergy, the big hair, sweatband-wearing “ultimate audio/video entertainment synthesizer.”
She’s this massive iPhone.

Let’s talk about the movie, which is being developed by three guys, among them, Justin Bieber’s manager.
I think that’s why they’re asking for fans’ input. They’re gonna produce it and whip it into shape, but I think them asking for help is probably a good idea. They probably anticipated people going, “What the … ?”

You starred in the 1988 girl band movie Satisfaction alongside Justine Bateman and Julia Roberts. It’s sort of a live-action Jem.
It’s a total weird coincidence. That was my first acting audition. I just had to be in a band, I suppose. It was all-girl but we had a male keyboardist, and I wasn’t the lead singer, although I do sing in the movie. We all sang — there was no lip-synching. I was excited about it at the time, and then Aaron Spelling got onboard and the script changed. It got a little silly. So we all had a good time making it but we didn’t expect too much from it. That’s another one that when I hear from people that liked it, I go, “What? Okay. That’s cool.” I’m not ashamed, although sometimes I had to watch with my hands in front of my face.

How did Aaron Spelling muck it up?
Initially, the part I auditioned for was the druggy guitar player. It was definitely grittier and more serious. Then they decided I was going to be the funny one, so I had to get big and clown it up. It ended up being fun, and I’m not embarrassed by my performance — except for the music! The sounds were not great, even though Steve Cropper was the musical director, and he’s obviously a legend and great. It was 1988, and I think he was trying to do something that sounded ’80s and the combo wasn’t great. There was one terrible original song called “Talk to Me” and the rest were covers. Some of those were okay. I sang “Mr. Big Stuff” and we did “Iko Iko,” and those sounded okay. The fake drums were not okay.

Given your experience in the area, how do you think they should handle the movie? Because no one wants to see another Josie and the Pussycats.
I never saw that, but I grew up watching it.

They could go super-campy, but I don’t think that’s the right move. 
Yeah, I think they’ve gotta go over-the-top serious, actually, and have really cool special effects.

Yes!
It could be cool if they totally do it how the cartoon was, and get someone who can really sing and act. They could definitely modernize the production of the original songs. The ’80s sounds are totally back anyway. They could modernize and still have it be very ’80s.

If the rivalry with the Misfits is played straight, this movie will also be very dark! 
That would be cool, though! I hope they do that. It’s a real superhero thing if you think about it. In Batman, there’s some nasty people. I would go Joker-style with the Misfits. Make them really bad. There’s so much that’s pretty twisted and dark in the show, they could have some real fun with it.

And what about Synergy? You should play Synergy.
Someone tweeted at me about that, and I had a laugh about it, but then I was like, “No, that would be cool.” I’m up for it. It would be the perfect cameo. Some people were like, “You should play Jem.” I’m way too old to play Jem. Are you crazy?

Photo: Jordi Vidal/Getty