We Are Your Friends and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Max Joseph
How many music movies are we going to get this month!? Straight Outta Compton is still dominating the box office, Rikki and the Flash came out just before that, and now we have this movie about Electronica artist? Well while those movies were banking at least somewhat on nostalgia and music from decades ago that everyone’s familiar with, this one’s trying to be a bit more modern with a genre that while being around since at least the eighties, hasn’t become prominent in the mainstream until the last five or six years. Not only that, but the movie also has a fairly significant draw in Zac Efron who’s been really trying to stretch himself creatively in the last couple of years in order to distance himself from his Disney super star days, and has actually been succeeding for the most part. Are we getting another classic rise to stardom story with a fresh coat of paint, or is this going to be an unbearable slog despite it being about a genre of music that’s underrepresented in cinema despite its popularity in the pop world? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Cole (Zac Efron) who’s a struggling Electronica artist in the San Fernando Valley. Like most creative types, he spends half his time working on his trade and the other half not doing much else, but he clearly has a passion for what he does and has aspirations to be one of the best. His three friends are Mason, Ollie, and Squirrel (played by Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, and Alex Shaffer respectively), and they don’t seem to have much going on in their lives either. Much less in fact considering that aside from Shiloh Fernandez (who half-heartedly wants to be an actor), none of them even have much of a dream to be striving towards and are just running out the clock on their twenties. They’re all still young even if the actors are clearly pushing thirty, but they are reaching the point in their lives where they can’t keep goofing around and have to either commit to whatever goals they have or move on to something else. Opportunity comes a knocking for Cole as he finds himself chatting up another electronica artist called James (Wes Bently) who has indeed made it in the industry and the two of them become friends in a sort of mentor mentee relationship. As with all music stories though, there has to be something to strain the friendship and in this case it’s James’s assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) who Cole starts crushing on immediately despite her relationship with James outside of her role as his employee. Will Cole be able to handle the modicum of success that slowly starts to take form now that he knows someone in the industry who’s willing to give him a chance? Will everything fall apart because he’s a dumb ass twenty-something that refuses to find ANY other person to fall in love with? Will his friends… do other stuff?
It was very odd watching this film so soon after American Ultra, because both movies are flawed in a similar ways. While the acting overall is quite excellent (Zac Efron and Wes Bently steal it here), the story itself has some serious problems and the pacing stops to a halt right toward the end of the second act. They both seem to come from the same starting point which is disaffected Millennials not realizing their true potential until something new is thrust upon them, and the both even have some stylistic choices which work more often then they don’t. What separates this from Max Landis’s less than stellar outing is that I ended up REALLY enjoying this movie, and it may be one of my favorites of the year. How is that possible? One word. Sincerity. Unlike American Ultra’s take on personal growth which is to fuck everyone and look out for numero uno, this one decides to instead fill the screen with as much heart and passion as it can muster which is what carried this thing for me even when it was going through some of it’s rough patches.
Let’s talk about the story. Once again, we get a perfect counterpoint to another movie I saw recently (Hitman: Agent 47) where I railed against its convoluted narrative and how that hurt the other aspects of the film that were supposed to be the focus. Here’s a movie that illustrates exactly what I was talking about where you can HAVE a movie that focuses on something else without having a story that drags everything down with it. You can probably guess where the movie is going just from the description above and you’d be right because this movie does little in terms of its character arcs to be all that unique. The specific genre of music they’re using here may not have been the focus of a major motion picture before, but the slow rise to stardom and the mistakes our hero makes along the way are almost what you’d get if you did a mad libs for a musician movie. That’s fine though, at least to a certain extent, because telling a new story wasn’t what the film makers were trying to do here. They were trying to make a really good version of that kind of story, only with a genre of music that hasn’t gotten its due in cinema yet. Now that’s not to say they succeeded entirely. While I get they want to retell a story we’ve seen before, it can still be a bit TOO predictable which means that you’re just waiting for the big crisis point to happen like a slow motion collision you have no way of stopping. Watching Zac Efron do the ONE THING he really should not be doing (falling for his mentor’s girl) is so obviously a bad idea that you have to wonder if the guy has ever seen a movie in his life or if this is a world where Fatal Attraction, The Graduate, The Door in the Floor, etc. were never made. There is one thing the movie does that I GUESS you can say isn’t predictable which is a death that finishes off the second act, but it also comes WAY out of left field and is contrived as hell to get Cole where he needs to be by the end. I won’t spoil who it is or the circumstances around it, but it’s kind of like if someone said they were two weeks from retirement, and then got hit with a bolt of lightning. This also leads to the pacing gets thrown off due to it slowing everything down to a crawl as we take ten minutes to get through it which forces the story to be front and center again (pushing the better aspects to the side) and as stated it’s just not that strong of a narrative. Also, the way Cole’s story wraps up is one of the cheesiest endings I’ve ever seen in a movie. Not only is his revelation on how to improve his music the most cliché and obvious thing you can imagine, but the way he incorporates the death into his big salvo is SUPPOSED to come across as heartwarming and sincere, but feels corny and a LITTLE bit exploitative of the tragedy. Finally, there is a subplot involving a part time job that Cole and his friends get which I THINK is supposed to be topical to the housing market crash, but we are at least five years outside of that being a relevant topic to be bringing into your movie. I get that a lot of people are still feeling the effects of that today, but there are other movies out there that do a much better job discussing that issue, and it feels out of place in a movie about a struggling artist trying to find out if he has what it takes to succeed in that world.
So the narrative is overall pretty weak and cliché with some moments here and there that throws the movie off at points. That said, the simplicity of the narrative and the fact that they pushed it to the background helps the movie out which is not the same as having a shit narrative we are supposed to ignore. While I wish the story was a bit more original and didn’t have the odd subplots, it wasn’t distracting enough to diminish what DID ultimately work so well in this movie. So then how good must the other aspects of the movie be for it to make up for it? Is the cinematography excellent? Well it’s not spectacular but it has its moments, and the editing will occasionally get creative with some Oliver Stone style cutaways, though it’s not very consistent with these asides throughout the movie. Is the script filled with sparkling dialogue and well written character moments? For the most part yes, though it still has to contort itself around the simplistic story so people seem way too smart to be falling into these obvious clichés. Well what the hell is it that makes me feel so damn positive about this movie? It’s pretty simple actually. The music is what stands out the most here. Like any good film about music or musicians, there was definite effort in choosing a perfect soundtrack for this movie that extols the virtues of its genre. I’m not sure how much of this is original material (Matthew “Fat Segal” Simpson is credited with the score on this) but wherever the music came from, it’s perfect. I’m not a fan of electronica for the most part, but what they do with it in this movie is about as effective as a really good documentary, in that it gets you invested in something you never thought would be all that interesting to examine in detail. Zac Efron’s character is likable enough, and watching him work as he creates new music is immediately relatable for any of us who’s had to sit for hours on end just chugging away on whatever it is we’re trying to create. He also has a really great monologue in this film about how electronica is supposed to work (especially when doing it live for a crowd) and it’s pretty fascinating to watch him work his magic.
The appreciation for this genre and the music throughout just fill this movie with so much life that it became infectious and I even went along with some of the cheesier moments of the film because of that; feeling the sincerity that they were trying to get across while still recognizing that it’s not quite as powerful as they meant it to be. That’s really it as far as why I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Every time that Cole and James are working together to make new tracks, the spectacle of the creative process just takes over and it becomes damn near magical for a couple of minutes as they discuss what works, try out new things, and have fun doing it. It feels like that must have been how the movie was made. They had what they needed as far as a story and then just poured their hearts on screen as they tried to recreate through the language of film the love they have for this genre of music.
It’s far from a masterpiece and I hope that someone does make a better film about this kind of music, but the earnestness of its mere existence is exactly what I needed after the dreadfully cynical American Ultra. Maybe I’m giving a studio backed film with a well-known star about a genre of music that’s very popular today too much credit, but if this was just as cynical in its production as American Ultra was in its final product, it certainly doesn’t show it on screen. In the end, I’d just rather see a movie about a guy trying to live out his dreams (can’t POSSIBLY imagine why that would appeal to a guy running a website who’s hoping to reach enough views for ad revenue at some point) rather than a film that rails against the idea of being a decent human being. It definitely gets a recommendation from because I certainly got something out of it and I hope that anyone else who sees it finds something to love about it as well.
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