We are your friends
Reviewed by Cathal Kavanagh
Any other summer and we could think about We Are Your Friends exclusively on its own terms. How often does a film about a young DJ, slowly clambering his way up the greasy pole of the EDM scene come to mainstream attention? Unfortunately for Max Joseph’s new film, this year we have two of them, and put side-by-side with Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, We Are Your Friends comes across as by far the inferior film, by turns bland and utterly ridiculous.
The idea is simple enough. Cole (Zac Efron) is a 23-year old musician living in the San Fernando Valley outside LA. By day, he hangs with his friends, tweaks his tracks and works the phones for a horrible company. At night, he plays as a DJ, his achievements so far limited to a side room at a local club night, and to all appearances he isn’t going anywhere fast. The next hour and a half of bewildering, hyperactive cinema concerns his meandering journey on the way to some twenty-first century variation on the idea of success. He becomes something of a protégé to James (Wes Bentley), an older, more established, DJ who could easily find work as a double for Novak Djokovic. He becomes infatuated with James’s girlfriend (Emily Ratjakowski, of ‘Blurred Lines’ fame). He slowly and, to our eyes aimlessly, begins to hack his way through the impenetrable forest of the music business. You know how these things go.
For all that it may seem like an unsalvageable train wreck, it does at least do some things well. There is a reasonable degree of narrative thrust, even if, as becomes clear, incidents come across as flat and unimportant. There is no performance that can be singled out as being particularly bad. There are even times when it veers close to being enjoyable. But it has a hard time escaping its oh-so-many flaws.
When the trailer was released, many inside and outside the EDM community took offence to the line, repeated more than once in the film, that ‘all it takes’ to find success as a DJ is ‘a laptop, some talent, and one track’. If that line seems ill-advised, the rest may come across as downright absurd. The whole thing seems to float along with the blissful naivety of a Leaving Cert English essay. Clichés abound in such blindly un-self-aware fashion as to make it seem as if the filmmakers have no idea that they are clichés at all. Look! Cole takes drugs and the walls start to melt, and then everything looks as if it’s, like, a cartoon? Here he is in Vegas, lolloping around the city with the woman of his dreams before finishing the night with a sheet-clutching sex scene! Original or what?
Probably more times than you could count, there are moments in this film which manage to totally break the illusion of reality, moments where the only response is to ask how and why they have found their way into the final cut of a major motion picture. Repeatedly, we are treated to those montages of rapid cut images overlaid with random snippets of text ripped from the irritating voiceover that appear everywhere but which belong nowhere. At a party early on in the film, Cole gives us a live tutorial on how to get a crowd to its feet, replete with x-ray graphics of the partiers’ chest cavities and ridiculous simplifications of many volumes of science and musicology into ‘128bpm is the magic number’. The tone of the whole project, particularly at the festivals and parties, is at times closer to a skippable ad on YouTube than anything worthy of the big screen. Experience your next night in Dicey’s through an Instagram filter and you’ll get the general idea.
If the tone veers into the ridiculous, the plot is no less strange. Packed full of incident it certainly is, but those incidents are rapidly discarded or quickly shunted into irrelevance. A major character has just died? Not to worry, you’ll be playing major festivals again in no time, and hey, you’ll have apparently revolutionised the entire genre as well while you’re at it, essentially by accident. Whether it is a coming-of age film about accepting the realities of adulthood, or a rags to riches story insisting that you follow your dreams, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
If the dance community finds bits of what transpires offensive, they won’t be alone. Anyone who cares about the continuing objectification of women in film, for example, will find plenty to write home about.
And yet, for all this, it still somehow manages to come dangerously close to being enjoyable in places. The enthusiasm and self-assuredness of the film almost succeeds in pulling you in and its energy is rarely less than infectious, if only in the way that certain diseases are infectious while inducing a type of delirium. We can imagine it playing well to the intended target audience. It’s so remarkably positive and sun-drenched that others might well guiltily admit to having a good time. Indeed, we could all enjoy ourselves at We Are Your Friends, if only it wasn’t so god-damn ridiculous.