Sunday, 4 October 2015

We Are Your Friends (2015) - Movie Review

Now for the third and final part of our look into the recent music-centric releases; oh, I do love obvious market trends. First, we had Straight Outta Compton, where I was well within my element given how often I seem to drop hip-hop titbits in these reviews anyway. Then, it was Ricki And The Flash, which had me well and truly out of that comfort zone into the realm of milquetoast drama involving oldie rock. Today, it’s a drop straight down the middle in terms of familiarity with the genre in question: Electronic dance music. I went through a period of swearing off most EDM out of pop elitism, especially dubstep back when Skrillex was first getting big media buzz, but have since grown a bit more accustomed thanks to artists like Parov Stelar and Pogo, along with rediscovering just how awesome the Jet Set Radio Future soundtrack was. That said, though, the whole EDM rave culture just feels… alien to me. So, with a certain affinity for the music but quite the distance from the lifestyle, how does this film weigh up?

The plot: Cole (Zac Efron) is an aspiring DJ who is trying to break out in the music scene. At a house party, he catches the eye of producer James (Wes Bentley) who takes him under his wing. However, as he starts connecting with James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) and disconnecting from his friends Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) and Dustin (Jonny Weston), he comes face-to-face with the possibility that he might not be able to make it as a DJ after all.

Efron, of all the child stars that have escaped from the Disney labour camps, seems to be one of the few that has managed to create a decent career for himself: No swinging naked from the chain of a wrecking ball, no collaborations with Harmony Korine and, as of yet, no drug-fuelled self-destruction in the works. However, with his choices of films of late, he seems to embodying the same Californian bro-douche attitude that went behind a lot of those “I demand to be taken seriously as an adult” moments, on-screen at the very least. Now, this is the kind of characterization that I would usually get into serious rants over since that brand of person occupies a place on my list of reasons why I watch films rather than socialize. However, much like in Bad Neighbours, the framing of both him and his friends is where the script isn’t trying to pull a fast one on its audience.

Efron, Fernandez, Shaffer and Weston all feel like they’re doing an EDM-centric version of Entourage, only I’m not wishing grievous bodily harm on these guys because their interactions work well enough. Alongside the bro brigade, we have Ratajkowski as the love interest and as much as I want to point out her sexualized history on the screen (namely, her infamous role in the Blurred Lines music video), she works well alongside both Efron and Bentley. Speaking of Bentley, the man who has made a name for himself for playing human weasels and otherwise slimy bad guys, turns in another fun performance. However, much like a lot of his other screen appearances, I’m not entirely sure if how entertaining it is is due to the acting, the glib dialogue or even if it’s intentional.

The writing here is a mixed bag, as it can make for genuinely interesting prose when it involves the music but kind of falls apart when it has to discuss anything else. Throughout the film, we get Cole narrating about the nature of DJing and how the music can affect the audience. These observations can vary from being potentially off-putting for its target audience, like a joke about dancing to hardstyle music, to kind of insightful like him depicting the music literally synchronizing with the dancers’ heartbeats. Yeah, sounds a bit corny but, between the unusually deft visualization and Efron’s delivery, it works to the film’s advantage. Of course, it would help if we didn’t have a frankly annoying visual motif where the dialogue is shown in large, friendly letters on the screen when spoken by the actors. At the risk of looking hypocritical when it comes to the raver viewing audience, I can only assuming that this aesthetic choice was to accommodate the audience members whose ears had been blown out from one too many concerts. What makes this weird is that aside from the literal spelling out of sections of the dialogue, and an outlying rotoscoped party scene, this is a pretty visually standard looking film.

Anyway, tangent, back to the writing. When this film isn’t espousing about the nature of the electronic music scene, it’s ultimately a pretty tried-and-true coming of age story involving an older mentor teaching a young upstart about their shared passion. Sure, we get a few interactions that work outside of that, like a confrontation between Cole and James that is handled a lot better than its contemporaries and a conversation that is honestly kind of sobering in its look at the teenaged mindset of the ‘summer job’, but other than that it mostly sticks to the same beats that we’ve seen involving this framework. It is because of this that the fact that the ending, which shows Cole come into his own as a producer, is as effective as it is is partially baffling to me. Then again, it could just be because of the great build-up concerning the soundtrack.

Speaking as a rather surface fan of electronic music, I sometimes find that tracks which fall under the EDM umbrella can sound a bit redundant if too many of them are played after each other in succession. Even for someone with this attitude, I still love this soundtrack. From the Justice track that gave the film its name to French DJ Pyramid who did Cole’s beat work in the film, not only does the music sound great but it’s also utilised really well from scene to scene.

In a party scene at an art show which features the aforementioned rotoscoping, the sampled strings of Fake Blood’s I Think I Like It add a suitable touch of class. In the strip club, the mushy-mouthed and down beat I Like Tuh by Carnage makes for an unlikely and rather sad-sounding match for the scene. When Cole and his friends party to celebrate his success, Lil Jon’s trademark ad-libs over The Americanos’ BlackOut lead the crowd. This is all capped off by the finale where Pyramid shows off his skills and goes full sample-crazy and creates a track from the film itself with Cole’s Memories, making for a decent tune and a well-crafted conclusion to Cole’s arc when paired with the visuals. Yeah, Cole apparently had a character arc somewhere in all this; kind of weird to have a satisfying pay-off to a plot that is anything but overall.

All in all, this only just manages to avoid the pitfall of other music-heavy films where they exist mainly for the sake of their soundtrack, as this does contain a handful of scenes where the music either bolsters the on-screen action or makes for interesting titbits in the dialogue. That said, the plot is still within the boundaries of the talented youth coming of age outline but only follows it to the point of being noticeable and not to where it gets annoying; if anything, this seems to make the effort to correct the past’s mistakes given how a few interactions are handled. Ultimately, I would advise checking the soundtrack without question if you have a suitable ear for EDM, but recommend the film attached to it under advisement.

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