“All it takes to be a DJ is a laptop, some talent, and one track.” As I hear/see that line my eyes roll back into my head and my body starts to convulse. I’m having a toxic reaction to what is, essentially, Hollywood’s jump-on-the-band-wagon manifestation of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) culture. But before I launch into my vitriolic froth, I must point out that I have been a professional DJ for more than twenty years. Yes, I am a grumpy old man, I will freely admit this. But I must also stress that, as an X-Genner, I have been lucky enough to experience clubbing the good old-fashioned way, when fashion wasn't so uniform, when house music was proper, you worked up a real sweat, and the disco biscuits didn’t crumble.
We Are Your Friends stars Zac Ephron as Cole, a 23-year-old San Fernando Valley boy with a big pair of Pioneer (product placement slap) headphones perpetually around his neck and three buddies, each with their own angle; Mason (Jonny Weston) - the cocky, pushy socialite, Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) - the wannabe actor who deals drugs, and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) - the mousey, slightly nerdy one. It’s Squirrel who gets the best line in the whole movie, when he raises his shot glass with this mates to say, “This is my favourite part of the night … The moment before it begins.” Yup, all know that moment, we can all empathise.
“Are we ever going to be better than this?” [Ed: Geez, I hope so!] This is another line of Squirrel’s which Cole records (it’s revealed at movie’s end he has been secretly recording and archiving dialogue and the natural sounds around him) and ultimately uses as a hook in his own original EDM piece, which eventually gets played in full at movie’s end during the Summer Fest scene when Cole lands his first big gig, courtesy of his mentor, the older, seemingly washed-up DJ, and alcoholic to boot, James Reed (Wes Bentley). Reed has done more than just take Cole under his wing, he’s inadvertently introduced him to his beautiful girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), and, as Sophie later rationalises with a shrug, the inevitable happens. Cole and Sophie get it on, James finds out, James is not happy Jan, and the shit hits the fan, but the boy ultimately gets the girl, because this is a romance at the end of the day.
But let’s forget about the romantic sub-plot for a minute, and focus on the main narrative thread; the rise, stumble, and rise of DJ Cole. “These days you can invent an app, start a blog, sell shit online, but if you’re a DJ you’re gonna need to start with one track. And if it’s real enough, and honest enough, and if it’s made of everything that’s made you; where you come from, who you knew, your history, then you may have a chance of connecting with everyone else, and maybe that’s your ticket, to everything.”
What a load of fluking bollocks. This is a movie about entitlement and greased opportunities. There is almost no real friction, there is virtually no sweat broken, and the beats are encased in a sheen so bright and clean you could snort coke off of them. Where's the underground?? Where's the authenticity? Apparently an LA DJ who goes by the moniker of Them Jeans was the technical consultant and gave Zac Ephron a crash course in How To DJ on a pair of Pioneer CDJ-2000s.
Well, okay, maybe this whole "one track" magic trick is true for the i-Generation. But then, with the exception of the synth intro to Cole’s original piece, I found all of the music in We Are Your Friends to be soulless, poppy rubbish. There was no “jazz” swing floating on the four-to-the-floor, or “funk” grind to be found behind the groove, no human space in between the synthetic rhythm, no real room to move. This is the main gripe I have with 95% of “EDM”. But the issue runs deeper than this.
The producer of We Are Your Friends, one Robert Silverman, with no other movies to his credit, is a fan of EDM. He supplied the hackneyed story, which was then turned into a screenplay by director Max Joseph, on his feature debut, and co-scripted with Meaghan Oppenheimer, who apparently had a feature script on the 2013 Black List. I think these two read about clubbing and DJ culture in an article in a magazine. Silverman refers to EDM as a genre of music. For fuck’s sake, it’s not a genre. It’s a damn American pigeon-hole for everything electronic that throbs and pulses. Genres are “house”, “techno”, “drum and bass”, etc. Electronic Dance Music is not a fucking genre, it's a broad sweeping term that didn't exist until commercial America realised the revenue that could be made from it. It’s a blight on the dancefloor and festival circuit, if anything.
But, hey, what do I know? I’m just a veteran DJ and independent music producer.
I’m just a grumpy old man.
Joseph and Oppenheimer’s screenplay is riddled with cliches. You can see the plot points on the distant horizon. Everything is so homogenised, so sub-culture lite. Cole and his buddies look more like Calvin Klein models than Valley kids. There is no grime, it's all polished and ultra-pretty. Even the inevitable tragedy is treated with kid gloves. The movie would’ve been a damn sight more interesting if it had been set in the mid-70s, with Cole and his mates being young, gay, black, pot-smoking, street kids and misfits, hanging around Coney Island, and Cole is seduced by the sounds of underground uptempo funk and dirty disco, introduced to the Brooklyn club scene, then lured into the city, being mistreated as bridge and tunnel trash, eventually meeting some cool cats, tasting MDA for the first time, playing vinyl at a house party, subsequently landing a gig in the downtown party network, then finally a storming set at the Gallery. And maybe if the movie had been called Music Dance Addiction.
Or something like that. But, that’s because I’m an X-Genner.
EDM is the sound of the younger generation. So, We Are Your Friends supposedly speaks to them, and not to me. What a wash-out.
“Rocking a party, step one. So it's the DJ's job to get the crowd out of their heads, and into their bodies. So in order to do that, you need, at the very least a caveman's sense of rhythm, a cursory knowledge of mathematics, and the broad strokes of ninth grade biology. For example, the bassline controls this region of the body right here [pelvis, hips] … Next you want to zero in on their heartbeats. I like to start 'em off at about 120 beats-per-minute. That's equivalent to the heartbeat of a long-distant runner. You see BPM is the name of the game. It governs how your body moves … Once you've locked on to their heart rate, you start bringing them up song by song. There's a popular myth that 128 beats-per-minute is the rate that synergizes most with your heartbeat. That's the magic number. Once you've gotten your crowd there, you're controlling their entire circulatory system.”
I’m having another toxic reaction … My eyes are rolling back into my head.
Apparently the film grossed an average $758 from 2,333 cinemas in its opening weekend. This was the fourth worst debut for a film with a 2,000+ cinema average. Go figure.
Hey, there are worse movies out there. We Are Your Friends is filled with eye candy, the performances are fine, although I never for one minute believed any of the actors in their respective roles, and the vibe it tries to exude is a heartfelt one, genuine in its hollowness. There aren’t many dramas set in this specialised world at all, so maybe that’s why I actually kinda enjoyed watching it. It held a morbid fascination. If that sounds hypocritical, then so be it.
1995 - 2005, the Golden Age of House Music.