Finding a visual equivalent for EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is a wickedly seductive temptation — not to mention building an emotional narrative around it. So first-time feature director Max Joseph, of MTV’s Catfish reality series, earns points for trying to give our eyes and ears a soulful workout in We Are Your Friends. It’s too bad the screenplay he wrote with Meaghan Oppenheimer, from a story by executive producer Richard Silverman, panders to formula instead of exploding it.
Zac Efron stars as Cole, a struggling DJ on the California EDM scene who firmly believes all you need is a laptop, some talent and one killer track. Cole, 23, lives on the fringes of the unfashionable San Fernando Valley and does odd jobs with his high school homies, volatile Mason (Jonny Weston), movie-star wannabe Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and nerdy Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). Ollie deals drugs and all the dudes sign on with Paige (Jon Bernthal), who runs a mortgage company that cheats people out of their houses. (Shades of The Wolf of Wall Street.) The money is good until Cole grows a conscience. Nothing else happens until Cole meets and impresses James Reed (an outstanding Wes Bentley), a hard-drinking DJ icon who intros Cole to the right people and, oh yeah, PCP. At an art gallery party, Cole sees the paintings and guests gyrating together like the animation in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Trippy? You bet. But to what purpose?
It’s not enough that Cole sees his idol’s feet of clay. “He used to be good,” says Cole to James’ hottie girfriend and personal assistant, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). “I think now he just gives the people what they want.” Which is, of course, exactly what this movie does. If you want to keep butts in the seats, do the trite thing. Did you ever doubt that Cole would hook up with Sophie or that a major character would die or that Cole would start listening to what the real world is trying to tell him?
The clichés tick off with metronomic regularity. What helps are Efron’s low-key charm, Bentley’s ability to cut below the surface, and music supervisor Randall Poster’s skill at laying on the sounds, including the main score by Segal. What hurts is that filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love did it better just a few months ago in Eden, about the French house movement since the 1990s. In this movie, James tells Cole the ideal EDM track would work up the heart-rate of the crowd to 128 beats-per-minute. We Are Your Friends never even gets us to break a sweat.