In the climactic development of We Are Your Friends, a Los Angeles DJ has a breakthrough. Cole (Zac Efron) constructs a dance track from sampled sounds of his recent life, including zippers, staple-guns and remarks by the Girl Who Got Away and the Friend Who Died. Both the song and the scene are preposterous, but the autobiographical audio-collage neatly exemplifies the movie, an intermittently engaging medley of genres, moods and intentions.
Produced by a British team with French money, We Are Your Friends probably got made because of its potential European audience. The title track is by Britain's Simian, as remixed by France's Justice — an electronic dance music duo. But the film lacks the naturalism and authenticity of the recent Eden, a Gallic contemplation of dashed EDM dreams. And it's set in the everyday USA, or Hollywood's notion of it: the San Fernando Valley.
Cole and his three buddies are working-class, ambitious and sort of proud of their origins. The Valley has "the best sushi in the Western hemisphere," boasts Cole during a jumpy intro to the unfashionable realm north of the Hollywood Hills.
The quick-cut travelogue is one of several self-conscious asides that recall British dance'n'drug movies of almost 20 years ago, notably Trainspotting and its amiable younger cousin, Human Traffic. Playful, silly and sometimes literally cartoonish, these sequences convey the bliss of being young, vital and incredibly naive about the hazards of drugs and alcohol.
There are, however, two other movies stuffed awkwardly into the same throbbing package. One is a show-business melodrama in which Cole acquires a mentor, globe-hopping DJ and producer James (Wes Bentley). James helps Cole get gigs and counsels him on how to craft dance tracks that have more "soul." But gratitude can't suppress Cole's attraction to James' personal assistant/live-in lover, Sophie (actress-model Emily Ratajkowski, perhaps best known for appearing in the "Blurred Lines" video).
The other storyline ventures into the territory of Boiler Room, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the upcoming 99 Homes. Cole's rowdiest pal (Jonny Weston) gets jobs for the DJ and the two other guys at a real-estate business that turns out to be unsavory. Cole's karma for the gig may be even heavier than for lusting after his mentor's girlfriend — although this is not the sort of movie that allows its protagonist to stay culpable for long.
We Are Your Friends was directed and co-written by Max Joseph, co-host of Catfish: The TV Show. He's an electronica fan, but relied on veteran music supervisor Randall Poster to assemble a score that emphasizes pop appeal over experimentation. Although the movie features a few moments of dance-floor nirvana, the music is mostly kept in the background. Hollywood epics and action flicks pump their faux-classical strings louder than this film does its EDM and hip-hop synth beats.
At the center of the story, and not for the first time, Efron is little more than a good-looking void. But that's largely the responsibility of the script, which gives Cole plenty to do but little to say or think. Bentley, Weston and Ratajkowski are all more interesting in smaller yet better-defined roles.
But why worry about characterization? The goal of EDM, at least to its more utopian advocates, is to annihilate the ego and embrace collective rapture. We Are Your Friends doesn't really do that, but it does occasionally crack open the door far enough to offer a glimpse of Eden.