by Jia Tolentino
We Are Your Friends, the Zac Efron EDM movie, had one of the worst wide-release opening weekends in history. Bringing in only 1.8 million dollars, it made only four-and-a-half times what Calvin Harris will reportedly make per night at Hakkasan in Las Vegas. It made four hundred thousand dollars less in its debut moment than All Dogs Go To Heaven 2.
This excessive tanking is theoretically unexpected: Efron is bankable (you saw Neighbors, right?); the procedural arts-striver movie (Center Stage, Pitch Perfect, etc.) is an evergreen format; and EDM as an industry is worth a global 6.9 billion dollars a year. But in practice, it makes perfect sense. We Are Your Friends is only good inasmuch as it’s willing to be uncomfortable and embarrassing and existentially complicated, three things that go exactly counter to what a teen who would pay to hear EDM music — which is to say this movie’s target demographic — wants.
I heard “We Are Your Friends” live for the first time the summer I was eighteen, on the first night I was in a new city. I flew to London, dropped my bags in a dorm room, wandered out of Regent’s Park, called my London-born college best friend from a pay phone on a corner, then immediately met him at a club. Justice was playing, he told me. I arrived at the Mean Fiddler in flats and cotton. “You must be American,” the coat check girl said. The lights went out; a solid cross at the front of the stage blazed white. Justice tossed neon miniatures into the audience and lit the place up.
I only knew “D.A.N.C.E.” and “We Are Your Friends,” Justice’s club-hymn rework of Simian’s one perfect UK-indie chorus. But the night percolated and pounded anyway — a painful, blissed-out, steady zonking that built to the chemical explosion of that drop. I remember it so clearly partly because I taped the night with a heavy, mom-like video camera, which I carried around all summer to fulfill the “research” requirement that put me up in London for free. I lost the tape a long time ago, but I used to re-watch it: my friend’s giddy face in the strobe lights, the baby crosses churning up and down in the dark.
It was 2007, anyway, and I was a beer-soaked sponge with my brain off. I knew what I liked, but not why I liked it or how it was made. It’s funny now, reading the Guardian review of the show that night:
It’s clear Justice are still on a learning curve: the duo DJ prolifically, but have only played live — the full knob-twiddling, keyboard-playing experience — a handful of times, and it takes several songs for their stern concentration to relax.
It hardly matters; by the time they leave the stage, […] it is likely the evening will go down in Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay’s personal history as a resounding success.
When they played those first live gigs in London in summer 2007, Auge and de Rosnay were closer to the age of Zac Efron’s rookie DJ character, Cole Carter. Today, they’re in their mid-thirties, in the presumed demographic of James Reed, the movie’s veteran DJ (played with intense cocaine alertness by American Beauty creeper Wes Bentley), as well Max from Catfish, who co-wrote the movie with Meaghan Oppenheimer. And, more than a decade after making “We Are Your Friends” — they released it as a one-off in 2003 — you wonder how Justice feels about We Are Your Friends.
The duo’s allegedly off recording their third album somewhere, and they haven’t been badgered successfully for promotional purposes, but in 2012 they told UK GQ:
One of the principles we have is that there is no weird place to hear our music: even if it’s a s*** movie it’s cool because it’s meant that for a music supervisor, your song complements this emotion or something a bit epic.
“For example,” added Xavier de Rosnay, “the best place for us to listen to our music is when there’s a football game announcement. You think, ‘Wow, if this track is powerful enough that someone thinks it could fit with a football game, then it’s perfect.’” Well, yes, they left out the part where they get sync money, but sure!
This stance wasn’t really a changed one — in 2007, de Rosnay was already telling the Voice that “We Are Your Friends” didn’t belong to them — but presumably it tilts a little differently around a flop. We Are Your Friends may have a strong second life as a hangover classic, but it will not stand up anywhere near as independently as the song that gives it its name. The two entities have opposing relationships to commercial integrity, anyway: Justice came from the aesthetic left and industry under; in not being fussed about integrity, they gained something close to it. The movie, on the other hand, was released in over 2000 theaters and stars an actor who still carries a whiff of Disney Original Movie. It comes from a paid, conservative, safer vantage point; yet it’s extremely fussed about integrity, and consequently loses its hold.
What is surprising, and presumably off-putting to the EDM teens, is that the movie admits this explicitly. True to its subject, there’s a point at which a big budget means that a certain degree of integrity’s already been fucked, and the inevitability of degradation — twinned with the futility of ambition — drives We Are Your Friends’s plot. The movie actually signals this immediately by placing Justice’s track right at the beginning. I’d expected to hear “We Are Your Friends” at the end, with Efron kissing the “Blurred Lines” girl corpo-budget as fireworks pummeled the sky. Instead, the track appears over a scene where Cole Carter’s deadbeat foursome is handing out paper flyers to promote a dance party at some Silverlake club. Nothing bad had happened yet; the subplots with unknown powders and real estate swindles had not even suggested themselves. And still, as the raucous persistent anthem faded out with the sunset over some anonymous state school, I thought, shit: This whole thing, emotionally, this whole thing in general, is a hundred percent headed downhill.
I was expecting We Are Your Friends to be a satirical, self-parodic caper (The Hangover set at EDM Jesus Camp) or an earnest, cheesy strobe-and-confetti set piece. Jarringly, it is neither. For a movie with a very uncomplicated scenario — “young DJ meets old DJ, falls for old DJ’s girlfriend, and everyone must deal” — We Are Your Friends is incredibly slippery. For one, the line between aspirational and pathetic is almost nonexistent, which is much to the movie’s credit. We Are Your Friends is decently true to its audience and subject matter — the music (Kygo, Years and Years) is right, as are the clothes, and the unfocused aggressive aimlessness, and the drug dependence, and on and on — that crucial ambivalence, which is painted over by the scene’s real-life participants to a degree that will prevent many of them from enjoying the movie, is accurate most of all.
Equally surprising is the way the movie refuses humor. Skewering EDM in 2015 would be incredibly easy, and the movie is very, very funny, but it’s laugh-at, not laugh-with. Instead, We Are Your Friends prioritizes a barbed, strange sincerity. It’s herbily didactic about the premise that Music Is A Complicated Art Form (the dialogue in this arena is horrendous; wait till the part where Efron discovers that you can make music on a computer while also using instruments other than a computer). It’s also quite clear on the fact that, if one were to be in pursuit of any grand noble ideals whatsoever, setting “EDM DJ in Los Angeles” as your end goal is really not the move.
It’s dark, is what I’m saying. The movie’s structured like a comedy, but no one is having fun. They are in constant pursuit of fun, but they can’t get on top of it, or recognize it, or are too drugged out to remember. The only moment of tangible good emotion comes directly from festival molly; otherwise, everyone’s too nervous, too sure that there’s something better, always on their way up or down. They’re choked with entitlement and dissatisfaction, the LA signature that defines Cole Carter’s posse: four demanding, lazy hustlers always gunning for a break. Distinctly white in the tenor of their aggression, these guys know it’s gonna be better; they’re gonna be famous; if you say otherwise, they’ll knock you out. It’s not very gritty and it’s certainly not cute either. Except: Everything is cute on Efron, who inhabits this part with a quiet, yearning magnetism. And the movie’s characters are as attracted to him as you’ll be during the shower sequences: The older DJ takes to him; the older DJ’s assistant-slash-girlfriend does too.
Not that the latter really “verbs” much of anything. Just like in the “Blurred Lines” video, Emily Ratajkowsi exists here as a sort of movable set piece: a blank forehead, a plumped-up top lip, a body tailored for slow-mo. But, tasked with meeting the dubiously sentient standard of a Hills person-shape, Ratajkowski does just fine; the range required is minimal. She “falls for” Cole Carter in the same way that she might Instagram a particularly appealing fern. Otherwise, naturally, the women in the movie don’t speak. One other gets a name; the rest get banged in a photo booth or vocal-fry their requests for “Drunk in Love.”
In place of the final scene where I’d expected Justice, there is something much stranger. It’s aggressively something. It’s the culmination of a sequence so earnest that I almost had a panic attack, and it feels like a combination of summit and nadir not just for Efron’s character but also the movie and also for me. Over his brand-new Track of Dreams comes Ratajkowski’s voicemail murmur from a bygone festival, dreamy under the influence: “I love it here.” Then comes a friend’s voice, recorded in a vulnerable moment: “Are we gonna be better than this?” Efron howls it into the mic, unbearably emotional, and the movie seems to be saying both “KEEP GOING FOR IT, YOU DREAMERS” and also “DEFINITIVELY NO.”
I thought about eight summers ago, my teenage self landing in London and going straight to see Justice. At the time, I was fresh off twelve years in a mega-church school, a few summers tilting old morality around a new series of wants. The through line between the club and the church service was, absolutely, salvation, which in both cases was found in a dark room, hands up, sweat, catharsis. I loved it there. And I didn’t ever ask myself if I was gonna be better than this. That’s the whole point of EDM and its less broad cousins: It’s atemporal; it collapses you away from thought into the very physical now.
I learned that and was baptized into the all-curious and anti-curious Ed Banger religion in front of “We Are Your Friends” and a neon cross. Justice, with † as their actual album title, gave me the a complete symbolic synthesis, as well as a distortion of my character and priorities whose effects I have yet to really see. The club makes you superficial and anhedonic: I know that much of what I mistook to be transcendent was in fact ordinary, or something even grosser — I also know that I’m still weak for it, that sense of ambient razored promise, show after show after show.
We Are Your Friends feels simultaneously like a Levi’s television ad, a Faint lyric video, a TED talk about BPM, and a meth-dabbling cousin of The Beach. It’s a true movie for late summer, the season of second chances, of trying to get serious, of asking, how dark is it actually all getting? The movie asks, and can’t answer. And no one can answer. No one wants to even be there for the asking. Do you know what I mean?