‘We Are Your Friends’: Portrait of the Artist As a Slightly Douchey Young Man
“I should have gone to college,” laments Cole, Zac Efron‘s character in We Are Your Friends, at the film’s outset. Cole has the good looks and biceps of a former Disney star who’s been killing it at the gym, but these assets have yet to vault him out of his dead-end manual labor gigs in the San Fernando valley. His one true dream (which has little-to-nothing to do with attending university) is to be a successful DJ and electronic music producer, and the movie follows him as he chases that goal in L.A.
Any film that sets its action amid a beloved subculture runs the risk of alienating the group it’s purporting to depict. DJs, producers and music writers had a Twitter field day when they got their first look at the project — to quote British artist Mat Zo, “Watching this trailer for We Are Your Friends makes me feel like a Mayan watching the Spanish fleet approaching.” As someone who spent my teen years immersed in America’s mid-90s rave boom — and as an adult who’s been paid to observe its current resurgence from a sober remove, and then write about it — I’ve always approached films about the dance music scene with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity. EDM is the new stadium rock and the club I danced in at 17 is now an NYU dorm, so I don’t cling to starry-eyed hopes that the scene’s more “authentic” aspects and visceral, often non-verbal bonhomie will translate onscreen.
Still, I wanted to see if We Are Your Friends could come close — also intriguing was the fact that its trailer presented the film as the definitive take on Millennial aspirations and the new EDM economy. And is it? Well, sort of. It’s more of a parable, with SICK BEATS and a kind of iffy moral.
Cole hangs with his longtime pack of party-promoter bros, including one who’s house he’s been crashing at for years, though I don’t think he ever explains why. His friends are lowlifes, which you know from their behavior and also because one wears a snapback hat that says “lowlife” on the front. In case anyone in the audience isn’t sufficiently softened toward their group pursuit of club life, director Max Joseph contrasts that world with another, far more nefarious entity: A company that preys on homeowners with defaulted mortgages.
To the credit of Wes Bentley and the script, his aging DJ-producer James is a masterful study in nuanced douchebaggery. Part wise and part washed-up, his first conversation with Efron’s Cole involves a lecture on why you shouldn’t put tobacco in your joint: “It’s not about making it last, it’s about enjoying it.” He’s talking about a high, but he is also talking about life! James is full of faux-deep statements like that, and Bentley infuses the character with enough warmth to keep you from dismissing him entirely.
James lives with Sophie, played by Emily Ratajkowski (Gone Girl, the “Blurred Lines” video). Sophie’s the only female character in the film aside from a beleaguered single mom facing foreclosure, who mainly serves as an opportunity to demonstrate Cole’s compassionate side. Perhaps a sizable chunk of We Are Your Friends’ target demo will see themselves in Sophie, with her festival headband and her sexy-swirly-arms-over-head dancing? Given that women rarely see the critical and financial success of their male EDM DJ-producer counterparts, their underrepresentation in the movie is —purposely or otherwise — a commentary in itself.
There’s cringeworthy moments, for sure. When Cole mansplains the concept of beats-per-minute to the audience, claiming 128 BPM is what holds a crowd in thrall, I found myself wishing Sophie would break his reverie with an “I know, asshole, I date a DJ who I also work for.” We’re also meant to understand that Cole has outgrown some of his loutish friends, so I found myself wondering why we were forced to witness their dull-witted exchanges in multiple scenes.
Catfish viewers have watched Joseph behind the camera for years, and he does display a good eye here when he finds beauty in the Valley’s arid, vapid landscape. A drug sequence incorporates digitally-rotoscoped animation, and while it doesn’t quite resemble real narcotic-induced hallucinations, the scene’s a fun diversion anyway. A high-stakes DJ gig takes place in front of an American Apparel distribution center, which is (ostensibly, hopefully) a wry sight gag.
Joseph’s efforts toward realism include cameos by marquis DJs including Dillon Francis, Nicky Romero and Alesso, that latter of which evidently gave Efron lessons so he’d be more convincing. There’s also intermittent drunk girls requesting Beyonce, that cliché of many a club night. The music supervisor should be commended as well, for interspersing currently popular artists like Kygo with “old” (i.e. pre-2008) tracks including the 2006 Justice vs. Simian song from which the movie takes its name.
But We Are Your Friends isn’t “about” the EDM scene — or at least not entirely. It’s more about Cole’s evolution as an artist. We’re meant to take his love for dance music at face value; aside from one shot of him zoning out in front of production software and a perfunctory conversation about a keyboard in James’ home studio we’re given little proof of this assertion. His breakthrough moment involves incorporating real-life sounds and voices into his digital soundscape — this is portrayed as hugely innovative though it’s been done to chart-busting effect before (as recently as this year on Diplo and Skrillex’s “Where Are U Now” with Justin Bieber). By the film’s end he makes a claim that’s relatable for most creators, about making something from a place of honesty and hoping that people will respond. But it doesn’t quite jibe with Cole’s “all you need is some talent and ONE track” thesis statement, and while that’s been a successful business model for some artists, it’s not a wholly uplifting message.