Review: 'We Are Your Friends' works when the friends are away and the music plays
At first glance “We Are Your Friends” may look like a shameless attempt for Hollywood to jump on the popularity of EDM (that stands for electronic dance music for everyone out there who remembers when it was called house or techno). Movie history is littered with terrible (and a few not-so terrible) films trying to make a buck off the trendy offerings of disco, punk, hip-hop, grunge and even good ol’ fashioned rock n’roll. While you can’t discount that potential marketing element in the film’s financing, director and director Max Joseph and his co-screenwriter Meaghan Oppenheimer have significantly larger aspirations. In fact, they have some teaching to do. Before we dive into that intriguing prospect, however, let’s meet the “Friends” in question.
The film centers on four longtime friends who are marshaling their resources in an attempt to break free of the shackles of growing up in the dreaded San Fernando Valley. Cole (Zac Efron doing his Zac Efron thing) is the burgeoning DJ looking for that big break. Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) dreams of being a movie star, but makes a paltry living selling drugs at the club. It’s slightly unclear what Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) aspires to other than being everyone’s voice of reason and being the quartet's resident duff. And, finally, Mason (Jonny Wetson) is the alpha male and pseudo club promoter keeping their collective dream alive. In Mason’s fantasies, someday the buddies will have enough money to rent a house on the other side of the hill (i.e., Hollywood) where the party won’t stop.
Even in the film’s early stages you quickly realize Joseph and Oppenheimer’s biggest mistake is that you never care about this dynamic (a significant problem considering the movie’s title). Luckily, they don’t wait very long to have Cole meet someone he looks up to, successful fortysomething DJ James (a fine Wes Bentley generating sympathy for what could have easily been a stereotypical industry douchebag). Cole initially disses James as a DJ who is phoning it in at this point in his career, but jumps at the chance to ditch his friends for a night of drug-fueled adventure. Eventually, James takes Cole under his wing and begins to broaden his artistic horizons about what electronic music is. Sure, it’s digitized, but the sounds can have organic origins (something Cole might have learned if he went to music school, a suggestion he casually tosses aside). Once this idea is brought up you can easily see where this storyline is headed and, luckily, it contributes to one of the film's most cinematic moments.
Of course, there needs to be some dramatic tension outside of the obvious newcomer who might overshadow the experienced veteran and that comes in a romantic love triangle involving James’ girlfriend and assistant, Sophie (a surprisingly good Emily Ratajkowski). In theory, this should be the weakest aspect of the film, but Joseph shows a deft touch by letting Cole and Sophie share their feelings for each other during an MDNA fueled night at a Las Vegas dance music festival. Yes, out of context it sounds like a wannabee Calvin Harris music video, but in reality it’s truly cinematic.
As the film continues, however, the “Friends” aspect continues to drag things down. Worst of all is the unnecessary sub plot where the guys get jobs working for a sleazy foreclosure scam artist (Jon Bernthal) that feels like it’s been plucked from another movie. It’s an all too obvious life lesson the movie simply doesn’t need.
What makes “We Are” worth your time is Joseph’s skill in conveying the euphoria of dance music in the context of an actual movie. Considering the dance genre exploded about 25 years ago, few filmmakers have been able to combine the two art forms without unintentionally parodying the familiar aesthetic of a Mountain Dew commercial (Tom Tykwer ‘s “Run Lola Run” and Mia Hansen-Love's "Eden" are two obvious exceptions). Not only does Joseph use the music to move the story forward, but breaks down your preconceived expectations of the skill behind these music maestros.
At one point, Joseph has Cole (and other DJ’s) demonstrate to the viewer how he captivates a crowd by making sure the bpm (beats per minute) of the music become increasingly synced to the heartbeats of his audience. Whether it’s a proven technique doesn’t matter. It demonstrates that Joseph has a clear vision of how he wants to captivate the viewer into understanding the intoxication of not only good dance music, but of a masterful DJ.
Joseph is assisted with an impressive soundtrack that benefits from not featuring mainstream dance artists such as Skrillex, Diplo or (thank heavens) Zedd. Years & Years, The Rapture, Seinabo Sey and a key original song by Pyramid (“Cole’s Memories”) are among the standouts.
Will the film seem dated within a few years? Likely, but for the moment it’s easy to ignore the silly subplots and let the music move you.
“We Are Your Friends” opens nationwide on Friday.