Saying you’re a DJ used to conjure up images of radio hosts and men in baseball caps bent over turntables. Nowadays, the job description involves tapping out strokes on a keyboard and bouncing around behind a table. “We Are Your Friends” aims to infuse some heart, both literal and figurative, into the world of electronic dance music (EDM) and the DJs that make it thrive.
The story follows 23-year-old Cole Carter (Zac Efron) as he attempts to find his way out of the San Fernando Valley and into the exclusive world of successful DJing. Cole lives in a pool house with his best friend, Mason (Jonny Weston), a club promoter and small-time drug dealer, along with fellow Valley boys Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer).
Cole, whose narration opens and closes the film, initially tells us that to become a successful DJ, all you need is “a laptop, some talent and one track” — the latter of which he is desperately working on. On an otherwise typical Thursday night at the club with his pals, Cole meets washed-up DJ James Reed (a deliciously sleazy yet charming Wes Bentley) and his personal assistant/girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). James takes a shine to Cole after they retreat to an alley to smoke weed (which we later discover has been laced with PCP), taking him under his EDM wing.
For reasons not entirely clear, James allows Cole full use of his impressive studio and house. Cole, in search of his own sound, receives coaching from James, who assures him that one can still be “organic” and make music on a laptop. Cole takes this to heart, attempting to listen to the melody of the world around him, made from the sounds he hears every day (mixed with a fat bass line, of course). All of these discoveries — about his music and himself — lead to a giant music festival that has the potential to change Cole’s life.
But predictably, he runs into a bit of a problem. As the overly generous James continues to help him, Cole falls hard for Sophie, a former Stanford student who has grown increasingly tired of her boyfriend’s drinking.
As Cole works with his newfound patron, he and his friends continue working for a manipulative real estate company owned by Ollie’s friend. But a story line that seems contrived to underscore just how badly Cole wants to break out of his rut suddenly turns into a moralizing lesson about California foreclosures. It’s a sweetly handled but unnecessary distraction in an otherwise music-centric story.
It’s not the only heavy-handed plot device. A shocking death from a drug overdose seems out of place in a script that glorifies its use.
“We Are Your Friends” is the feature directorial debut of Max Joseph, best known as a producer of “Catfish,” the MTV reality show about the potentially deceptive world of online dating. His use of onscreen graphics and animation in “Friends” is distinctive, but it ultimately seems like a gimmick. The first half of the movie uses it with mixed success: A vision of a heart pumping at 128 beats per minute, as if seen through an X-ray, is impressive, while words that pop up onscreen as characters speak them seems cheesy, in the manner of a YouTube lyric video. By the end, though, the original bits fade as easily as one song bleeds into another.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity. 96 minutes.