28 Aug 2015

We Are Your Friends Review

Zak Efron stars in his latest film, “We Are Your Friends,” playing Cole Carter, a 23-year old DJ and aspiring producer, directed by a Max Joseph (Catfish: The TV Show). Considering how EDM has skyrocketed in popularity worldwide in the last ten years, financially and culturally, it’s surprising there aren’t more films with plots focused on dance culture and all its components. Maybe that’s a good thing.

In “We Are Your Friends,” the protagonist Carter lives in San Fernando Valley with his close friends of the same age: Mason, a ‘loose-cannon,’ played by Jonny Weston; Ollie, yet-another-wannbe-actor who supplies the illegal party favors to supplement his income, played by Shiloh Fernandez; and a Squirrel, a more sensitive soul who Cole turns to for ‘real’ conversations about life, played by Alex Shaffer.

Living in Simi Valley, armed with aspirations and nearing their quarter-life crises (still cringe/gag/laugh at the term, but felt it appropriate in this case), they decide to go to work for a shady real estate company that takes advantage of those down on their financial luck, snapping up foreclosure properties from families, under the guise of helping out in time of need. The recruitment scene the guys attend is plucked right out of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Meanwhile, Carter’s lifeline to DJ stardom is tied to James Reed (Wes Bentley), a 40-something producer/DJ who’s achieved success in the dance music business and has the house, the toys, and the pool to show for it. It’s evident that the cynical, bitter and alcohol-dependent Reed with a PA/girlfriend who is half his age, Sophie, played by Emily Ratajkowski, is resisting and resenting getting older.

Reed, as Carter’s mentor, also has some of the best and funniest lines in the film, and frankly, provides the few redeeming moments in “We Are…” His take on Carter’s explanation for the planned big hit, infused with tons of catchphrases you’d find in Soundcloud comments, comes out, “You sound like an asshole. The only thing missing is a hashtag.” When Carter does put a song together and plays it for Reed, once again, “The first part sounds like Skrillix’s brother,." Carter needs to get his head out of his ass, er, laptop, not use the same cold, manufactured, default fucking samples as every other wanna-be producer is doing these days. It’s an art imitating life moment, but in the smallest sense.

This is also where the screenwriter Meaghan Oppenheimer and Joseph, either intentionally or not, seem to be writing for the true dance heads that have become sick and cynical about the repetitive, mainstream, manufactured pop dance drivel that seems to be heard from one stage to the next at many a dance festival these days, when even our favorite producers are jumping on the sound-alike 'EDM' bandwagon (seriously Moby, what the hell was your EDC set all about?!). “Haters are your target audience,” says Reed. Well, they may have that in spades during this film-viewing occasion.

The story line of Carter taking the sounds of the suburbs and his life to create his "songs have soul" debut, it’s been done before and a lot better.

Hannes Stöhr’s “Berlin Calling,” which shows real-life producer/DJ Paul Kalkbrenner playing the lead character, big-time DJ/Producer Ickarus capturing sounds of the city on his smartphone to create samples for use in his productions, also while massively crazy, and at times, institutionalized. Another inspiring DJ-centric film that came out in 2014 and was featured at SXSW earlier this year was Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden,” which closely resembles the rise of Daft Punk, chronicling French Touch music over a twenty year period.

Films that switch roles, with the dance kids as story leads, include the hilarious and true-to-life “Groove,” directed by Greg Harrison, set in San Francisco’s warehouse music scene at the turn of the century, and an equally funny and entertaining “Human Traffic” about Cardiff’s UK dance culture from 1999, directed by Justin Kerrigan.

As Cole’s story goes on, there’s the angst of selling his soul to make a buck, a back-stabbing move to make it with a woman, making amends with his friends and his mentor, and his strife to make it as a big-time DJ. But none of these elements are presented in very compelling fashion, and the film is overrun with plot directions seen from a mile away. The discussions the four friends have about how to make their 20-something future bright is simplified and immature; just make an app and sell it for $400 million, or make that one track and become a millionaire DJ.

When it comes to the soundtrack for “We Are Your Friends,” that becomes the movie’s other moment of redemption, especially the inclusion of Hayden James “Something About You,” “Break Yourself” by Hook N Sling, Far East Movement and Pusha T, “Pushin’ On” by Oliver and Jimi Jules, and even “Cole’s Memories” by Pyramid, to mention just a few. But would pass on others, including “Desire,” (You don’t like Years & Years?!” No. No, I don’t.) “Younger,” and “I Can Be Somebody,” which fall into the mass-market, candy-coated, Auto-tune category that’s extremely popular in Vegas dance clubs, but no less annoying.

“We Are Your Friends” is laden with cheesy, cliché, and at times, misogynistic moments in the film. Other ‘yeah, that wouldn’t happen’ times included getting by EDC (Electric Daisy Carnival) security with drugs in your cargo short pockets, dancing sweat-free in the Vegas heat of night at said festival, or being at EDC and then suddenly back at The Strip.

When the movie get to the point where Cole finally does discover his ‘signature’ and plays it for an audience, it happens in such an, “Oh, come on!” way (when was the last time you were at a festival and the DJ had a cold start like a band coming on stage?) that it sucks the air out any inspiration that may have come from such a debut.

“We Are Your Friends” is fun at times and even has moments of ‘ahh…how sad’ or ‘ahh…how nice’ but overall, it’s a pass. In the meantime, check out the “We Are Your Friends” soundtrack and the other dance-oriented films noted.

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