My Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Based on the trailer, We Are Your Friends looks like a fictional biopic about an electronic music artist’s rise to fame, sort of like a modern version of the epic rock and roll movies of the last several decades. However, the actual story is more about the process of creating powerful music and the struggles that come with attempting to achieve a goal like becoming a famous record producer when there is no real guarantee that it will happen. It is not a story about making big strides, but little steps in the right direction.
The story centers on Cole Carter (played by Zac Efron), who is a DJ in his early 20s trying to become said famous record producer. Along with his ragtag group of friends, Cole promotes for a local club in the area with hopes of one day playing original songs there. One night, he connects with James (played by Wes Bentley), a somewhat famous DJ in his 30s. After an interesting night of learning about one another, James becomes Cole’s mentor. As the story progresses, Cole gets a glimpse into the darker side of fame by getting to know James and realizing that he is a drunk who has lost a lot of passion for his art. A relationship with Sophie (played by Emily Ratajkowski), James’ live-in assistant/girlfriend adds to the tension as well.
After seeing Straight Outta Compton, a powerful movie about artists who revolutionized the music industry by working hard and taking an underground style to mainstream audiences, We Are Your Friends seems very small in scale in comparison. This is to be expected since We Are Your Friends was focused on a much smaller timeframe and a much more specific part of Cole’s musical journey. And I liked that the movie wasn’t predictable in the sense that instead of being about a musician that made it big and then had to deal with the consequences, it was about Cole finding his voice as an artist and trying to make it to the next step while dealing with all of life’s issues outside of music. However, this was unfortunately one of the only aspects of the film that was predictable or clichéd.
The overall plot line was pretty generic and skeletal, and most of the characters were stereotypical (the hot head, the quiet sexy guy, the slutty girl with relatable issues, the failed alcoholic artist, etc.), though occasionally delivered powerful dialogue that helped get across the overall message of the film. We didn’t really get to know any of the characters on a deeper level with maybe the exception of Squirrel and James.
Cole was a relatively quiet main character, who seemed to be pulled around by his circumstances at times. This made it seem as though his successes were a result of luck, when in reality he at least had the right kind of ideas. He was an odd combination of a brooding, determined, and reclusive artist with the sultry, lady-killing hunk that most people know Zac Efron for playing. The only time we were able to connect with him on a deeper level was when he used exposition to describe the steps he goes through to make people dance, the effect electronic music has on the body, and how he believes that creating the right kind of track can change the life of a DJ forever.
(Slight Spoilers Ahead)
In the middle of the film, there was a tragic event that was supposed to have a deep emotional resonance with the audience, but because of how the characters had been set up, it was hard for the moment to be as impactful as it should have. Cole plays a show towards the end of the movie where he uses the pain from this tragic event to create a track that is more powerful than anything he had made up until that point. I will admit that this final scene sent chills up my spine, but that scene and the others at the end of the film made things seem a little too neatly wrapped. It made you feel good, but didn’t really do more than scratch the surface of these character’s lives
It felt as though the characters were deeper than they seemed, but that the film didn’t explore them in a way that fully fleshed them out. Unfortunately, this may be the results of centering a film around the idea of a musician trying to make it, as it is far easier to take a famous figure and humanize them than to take an average guy and make him into something more inspirational. At the end of the film, Cole wasn’t famous, but he was given an opportunity that could allow him to get there in the future. He was neither tragic nor extraordinary, but an everyday guy with a lot of passion drawing inspiration from the world around him and utilizing his emotions to connect with others. While this is exactly what all great artists must do in order to become big, it doesn’t mean that all talented artists will become big.
I feel like the weakness in the film’s storyline and characters were a result of trying to tell this different kind of musician story. Luckily, the messages for artists and other dreamer that the film had were powerful ones that resonated deeply with me. We Are Your Friends speaks directly to anyone with a goal, especially artists. The four friends need to make choices as the film progresses about how to live their lives and whether they want to continue to pursue their goals or get safe business jobs. The tragic event that I mentioned earlier literally gives them a taste of the dark side of the high life and causes them to make different decisions about where to go with their lives.
At one point, Cole calls James a sellout who and mocks him for only staying in the music business to collect a paycheck. This is a powerful moment in itself because it marks the first time Cole stands up to James as a mentor and his fully honest with him about his opinion. However, James’ response gives the interaction a lot more depth and really lets the audience get a closer look at who he is and why he is that way. James tells Cole that he has no right to talk, because he doesn’t understand who he is yet and that sometimes in life there are things that change everything in a bad way and you won’t have any way of stopping them.
This comeback foreshadows the tragic event on the horizon, but also tells us that James has dealt with something life altering in the past and it shaped who he is now. When Cole experiences his own life altering experience, he falls into a depression that prevents him from working and he goes to see James for more advice. Despite his lack of respect for James, Cole understands that his mentor has more experience and connections then he will and that he cannot achieve his goals on his own. When Cole tells James he hasn’t written in weeks, James tells him not to let it be years, again drawing an unsaid comparison to his own artistic struggles.
It is at this point that the two characters diverge in their approach to their individual issues. Where James let whatever happened to him consume him and turned to alcoholism and drugs, Cole took that pain and made his art more powerful with it, which is something that great artists will typically do. In the end, Cole did go through a sort of character arc in which he realized that the end goal is only part of the journey and that the things you go through on your way there can shape you for better or for worse.
Before I finish this up, I just wanted to note that the visual effects were absolutely stunning and really helped get the audience into which Cole’s head when he was feeling a certain way emotionally. I liked that the filmmakers were able to use this technique instead of always relying on exposition as they frequently did at the start of the movie. In particular, the rotoscoping used for the PCP trip and the effect of the sun going on and off during Cole’s final performance were particularly poignant.
For those of you interested in electronic music, the struggles of becoming an artist, or Zac Efron, I recommend seeing this film. Though you may want to wait for it to be on television if the the issues with the writing that I mentioned turned you off. We Are Your Friends is a well-crafted film with good actors and had writers than clearly wanted to say something powerful, but fell short in terms of framing that message in a way that felt real or unique.