As big an impact as EDM has had on music in the last decade, the surrounding culture has barely made a ripple in the world of film. Much of what’s out there consists of comparatively little-seen documentaries like last year’s Under the Electric Sky.
The amiable, though hardly groundbreaking We Are Your Friends helps remedy that situation somewhat. While the idea of High School Musical star Zac Efron playing a club DJ might be aesthetically offensive to some EDM purists, director/co-writer Max Joseph — the co-host/videographer on MTV’s Catfish — has created a story that at least feels as if it’s crafted by someone who actually appreciates and loves the music.
Instead of referencing mainstream EDM acts like Deadmau5 or Calvin Harris, he has one of the characters namecheck pioneering Detroit techno DJ Juan Atkins, while the soundtrack boasts the likes of Bro Safari and Justice vs. Simian. The latter’s soulful and pounding 2006 track, We Are Your Friends, supplies the film’s title.
Efron is Cole, an aspiring L.A. DJ with big dreams who lives with his best bud and would-be manager, Mason (Jonny Weston), in a charmless San Fernando Valley neighborhood. They hang out with two other friends — drug dealer Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and hanger-on Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) — and live for Thursday nights, when Cole hits the decks at a Hollywood club.
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To make extra bucks, they take jobs working in a real-estate boiler-room operation run by Paige (Jon Bernthal), an older friend of Ollie’s who impresses the kids with his ability to throw around money.
Cole’s heart isn’t in that, though. All he cares about is music, so it’s fortunate when he strikes up a conversation with a veteran but past-his-prime DJ, James (a persuasive Wes Bentley), the headliner one night at the place Cole spins.
The two form a mentor-student friendship, but friction comes in the form of Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), James’ half-his-age assistant and girlfriend whom he takes for granted. Of course, there’s the spark of attraction between Cole and Sophie.
Efron acquits himself well here as a DJ, and the rest of the cast, especially Weston as headstrong Mason, is solid. Joseph, in his first feature, enlivens an unremarkable story with some clever, cheeky visuals, such as when Cole has a drug-fueled freak-out at an art-gallery party and the scene slowly dissolves into animation.
Similarly, there are the witty explainers on how the San Fernando Valley differs from the rest of L.A. (it’s all in the sushi, apparently) and the magic number of beats per minute it takes to get a crowd moving.
Like with Love and Mercy and Straight Outta Compton, some of the film’s best scenes involve the act of creation, as when James shows Cole how to infuse machines with heart and soul. (And Catfish fans should look closely, because host Nev Schulman can be spotted in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him crowd shot.)
As witty as these moments are, they can’t provide quite enough spackle to cover up a story with few surprises or characters in whom it’s hard to invest much energy. And as good as much of the music is, the film still feels like a studio concoction, a nod to a subculture Hollywood still doesn’t quite understand.
But, to paraphrase words of wisdom from a previous generation of young dancers from Dick Clark’s half-century-old TV series American Bandstand, it’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to.
We Are Your Friends
Director: Max Joseph
Cast: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Jon Bernthal
Rated: R (strong language throughout, drug use, sexual content, nudity)
Running time: 96 min.