At what point does “EDM” become not just a corporate branding term, but a metaphor? The answer, you wookie-boot-wearing, free-love-aspiring, waiting-for-the-drop millennials, is right this very cultural second, the historical point in late summer 2015 AD in which Catfish’s Max Joseph—along with co-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer—teamed up with former Disney star Zac Efron to create a film that’s not just about the DJ lifestyle (and its parallels with every other music-backboned subculture whose prime goal was to buck the system), but also aims to teach the corporate rave-going masses a thing or two about DJing as a craft. No lie.
We Are Your Friends is the rare movie that tries to encapsulate the heart of electronic dance music culture as it exists now by telling the story of a participant. Efron plays Cole Carter, an aspiring young producer/DJ who lives in the San Fernando Valley with his friend Mason (played methily by Jonny Weston), a small-time promoter at some banging club in Silverlake. Along with their friends Ollie and Squirrel, they’re a posse of bros with big dreams; at the start of the film, Cole’s biggest desire is to DJ somewhere that’s not the club’s side room, and hopefully with a set time somewhere after 11 PM.
Early on, Cole meets big-time but washed-up DJ James (Wes Bentley), who’s smoking sherm outside the club and sets up the film for one of Catfish Max’s outré, variously effective stylistic choices—a gloopy CGI scene that perhaps unintentionally makes PCP seem like a really fun idea. He also meets Sophie (Emily Ratajowski), who seems to be wearing Ann Taylor Loft in the club and turns out to be James’s personal assistant/girlfriend (though the film takes GREAT PAINS to make sure we know Sophie is not just some stereotypical LA EDM babe because she went to Stanford and eats cheeseburgers [even though she is one of a grand total of two women with a speaking role outside of the single, repeated line “Can you play ‘Drunk in Love’?”]). Through James and Sophie, Cole gets a taste of the high-paid, well-loved, swanky famous-DJ lifestyle, and learns what really matters to him, which is essentially: making something of his life, and really living it.
It’s a convoluted plot with some unintentionally hilarious moments (I was the only person in the theater who guffawed when Cole exclaims to James “YOU HAVE A WURLITZER?!?!”). But I liked it: We Are Your Friends is weirdly bleak, a tragedy that really taps into this level of suburban ennui and the life paths of working-class dudes in the Valley, a droll lot seemingly preordained by the flat sounds of the repetitious landscape around them: wind turbines, the whistling of deciduous trees, the thumping repetition of Cole’s hot breath as he runs past them. (These sounds factor in later in the film, perhaps even when Cole is... cutting a track, freed by the very locale meant to trap him.)
The film’s pacing mimics the profound existential repetition the characters are trying to break from—or, the rhythm of the beats the masses want to dance to, amirite!!!—spliced with shots of Cole repeatedly stuffing money into an old Adidas shoebox under his bed, raising one of the film’s many unanswered questions: WHY DOESN’T COLE HAVE A BANK ACCOUNT?! But also, there’s a subplot involving foreclosure and the subprime housing crisis (for real) that underscores We Are Your Friends’s working-class aesthetics; in a shifty, imprecise way, the film offers this as commentary on the flimsy and untrustworthy nature of the financial system from which EDM offers a wormhole out—if only for a minute. (Scroll down to the very bottom of this page for more of the film’s unanswered questions, which are spoilers, if you dare.*)
This enticing and sometimes absurd premise that professions related to the dance music industry are the sole modes of hope for Cole and his friends to get out of the Valley, is actually supported by the music: the man who crafted the songs Cole Carter is shown to be making is none other than Segal, the British producer who scored hallowed UK teen show Skins, and reworked its theme song into a different gorgeous textural version of itself each miraculous season. (My favorite version was Series 5; it still bangs.) It was a brilliant choice by Catfish Max, who discovered Segal the way we all did, by watching Skins—if Cole Carter’s music sucked, it would have tanked the entire film and made its musical focus even more hilarious. But Segal gave We Are Your Friends an authentic producer feel, amplifying its somewhat moralizing tone that all current music is copycat garbage, and its overt message that the best producers make dance music that feels organic, because—as both Carter and James say several times in the film—DJing is just trying to capture your audience’s hearts, both figuratively and literally (128 BPMs, we learn via CGI, is the exact rhythm that syncs to the average person’s heart rate, and the way to really sync your vibes to humanity).
Even so, though: there are way too many shots of gear-head Cole working on tracks in an overly simplistic Ableton-style platform, which is even kind of boring to those of us who can make computer music ourselves—rule of thumb, no one wants to watch you 1. play video games 2. make beats, and besides we already have the New York Times to show us that. But even those scenes play up to the film’s idealistic intentions about DJ culture and electronic musicianship. We Are Your Friends is trying to comment on the ways by which hyper-marketed, corporate EDM culture overshadows the hallowed act of raving for the love, even if it’s also operating with a self-awareness that it’s a mass-market EDM movie itself. There are unexpectedly few EDM fests worked into the narrative (Electric Daisy Carnival gets a cameo, obvs), and even the cynical technicolor landscapes of Spring Breakers, the obvious precedent to We Are Your Friends, made partying seem more fun—here, there’s a workhorse quality to the raving that reflects the existential bent.
One difference between this and Spring Breakers, though, is that We Are Your Friends has a heart. Catfish Max is clearly a dance music head, and the film is obsessed with musical purity to the point of proselytizing. (The extended DJing tutorial that also functioned as a PSA was particularly hilarious, not the least because it was so earnest of heart; lord willing, this won’t be the last film that ever expounds upon the intricacies of BPM.) A couple of scenes really captured the peak and plateau of the platonic ideal of a drop, the point in a song blasting through 12-story speakers that you want to fall in love with someone at the climax—or, at the very least, make the molly high last as long as it can go before the DJ transitions to the next cut.
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*SPOILERS: Other questions this film asks include: Is this story at all autobiographical for Catfish Max? Why would you leave the rave if you’re rolling? And did Squirrel SERIOUSLY die from molly?!