Whenever the underground morphs into the mainstream, it is nearly inevitable that the era will be archived through film. With EDM becoming the defining sound of the new generation — diffused through every popular music genre, selling out festivals and stadiums, and making a new brand of rock stars out of its most famous personalities — We Are Your Friends exists as its cultural translator, annotating the urgency, desperation and ADD vibe of the scene, as well as the kids who love it.
Zac Efron stars as Cole Carter, a Valley bro and aspiring DJ who is surrounded by a small, scrappy and fiercely loyal crew of club promoters and drug dealers who want to escape to the Hollywood Hills. Their schemes are the get-rich-quick kind, with ringleader Mason (played with charmingly skeevy perfection by Jonny Weston) egging on their bad decisions and helping make most of their actions mostly irredeemable — sometimes even fatal.
“When I was 19, I did an internship in Los Angeles and lived with a friend of mine in the Valley,” first-time feature director and Catfish star Max Joseph tells Rolling Stone of the inspiration behind the film’s core friend group. “He and his friends were a lot like these guys. They were promoting in clubs, hustling and hitting on every girl they saw. They’d recruit them to come to the parties, and it was very different from my upbringing. It shocked me.”
Combined with Joseph’s love of electronic music, the premise of a movie about Valley boys and EDM came naturally after Working Title cold-called him while looking for a feature set in the world of electronic music. He’d found himself drawn to the genre in the Nineties, well before the mainstream EDM explosion of the past few years. He cites Ninja Tune, Amon Tobin and Bonobo as his early favorites before becoming a fan of dance punk — LCD Soundsystem, Justice, Klaxons, Arctic Monkeys — and the “French touch” in the 2000s.
“I don’t think [my taste] is entirely authentic to the characters,” Joseph admits before noting that Wes Anderson and Martin Scorcese’s famed music supervisor Randall Poster helped guide the sound of We Are Your Friends. “He worked with me to really find music that was contemporary and that overlapped with pop. It’s a mix between my favorite dance music but also music that would be authentic to this group of guys who wouldn’t necessarily know the stuff that I like.”
Efron’s exposure to dance music, however, mostly came from hitting up Coachella over the years; it wasn’t until he got involved with the movie that the High School Musical star got schooled in everything from dubstep to deep house. “Max really opened my eyes to electronic music,” he says. “He started a playlist that I followed on Spotify. I had never heard any of the music on it. And [co-star] Wes Bentley was also a DJ growing up and would actually spin at clubs on vinyl. Learning about the world was fascinating.”
As for his more technical mentorship, DJ and producer Jason Stewart — better known by his nom de EDM Them Jeans — helped teach Efron the art of moving a crowd. “It’s half technical and half style,” the actor says. “I learned how to use the decks properly, how to transition tracks. It’s also the energy and enthusiasm you put into everything you do. You don’t just add an effect, you kind of zone into it. You put your whole arm into each knob twist.”
In the film, Bentley’s character James Reese is an aging, alcoholic DJ who was “once great but now just gives the people what they want,” as the younger man describes the veteran scenester. The older artist encourages his acolyte to listen to the world around him, without knowing that Cole has fallen for Reese’s assistant and girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). “[EDM] is a very warm community,” the director says of the inspiration for the triangle. “People love collaborating and incubating talent, but it’s not without some inherent jealousy and competition.”
According to Joseph, Ratajkowski — the Instagram-famous model-turned-actress and the only one to get a career boost from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video — shined in her audition because of the subtlety she gave to the Stanford dropout. “In a lot of ways, I related to her,” Ratajkowski says. “I related to the idea of wanting to be comfortable even before you’ve really earned it. I think the situation we find her in at the beginning of the film is a really comfortable one, but it isn’t really one that’s about her at all.”
In between love triangles and friendship drama, We Are Your Friends finds time to accurately depict the most popular ways dance music is consumed and experienced today. From flashy Vegas festivals to gritty clubs to house parties and just dancing alone in a room, Cole, Sophie and their cohorts jump through Molly- and beer-fueled scenes of the current dance music community. To promote the film, Efron, Joseph and Ratajkowski have flown to major cities to host post-screening club nights starring artists from the film’s soundtrack.
The climactic final scene in particular involved staging a real block party featuring acts like Nicky Romero performing for free to a crowd of dance music fans. “Zac had only two 20-minute segments to get up in from of the crowd in between these big headliners and perform his final track,” Joseph says of that day.
“I keep thinking about the butterflies I had. I’m having flashbacks right now,” Efron adds. “Luckily, I had put in some time in rehearsals and knew what I was doing up there a little bit, but it gave me the rush and the feeling that I imagine DJs must thrive on. It’s like doing theater or something.”
As for Joseph, the show that catapulted him into stardom — MTV’s Catfish — also motivated the film’s message. “I spend a lot of time hanging out with kids in their early twenties who feel like they’ve messed up and have really screwed up in a lot of ways,” he says of the experience. “We spend a lot of time talking to them and saying ‘You can change that.’ It became such a common theme in everything that we were doing that it seemed profound, and it seemed to really be coming out of this generation to a certain degree.”