‘We Are Your Friends” is a drama set in the electronic dance music scene and starring Zac Efron, and, yes, that sentence just canceled itself out. Is there even an overlap between fans of EDM and fans of Efron, or is it just a depressing idea for a Venn diagram? In any event, the film’s as mild and formulaic as the music can be intoxicating; it’s just the latest exploitation of a scene that has been around long enough for the suits to notice it, attach a pretty face, and try to squeeze a little money out.
Four decades ago, that scene was disco and the movie was “Saturday Night Fever.” The people responsible for “We Are Your Friends” understand their target audience has never seen the 1977 John Travolta classic and so they, the filmmakers, are free to pillage as much as they can in terms of story and character. Instead of Brooklyn, we’re in the San Fernando Valley, and instead of that dancing fool Tony Manero, we have Cole Carter (Efron), an up-and-coming DJ in the LA club scene who mostly stands there and twiddles knobs while his loudmouth buddies try to score girls.
As in “Fever,” our hero is itching to break out of his working-class dead end. (And as in “Fever,” one of his friends is a sensitive shrimp who might as well have “lunchmeat” tattooed on his forehead.) All a DJ needs for success, we’re told, is a laptop, some talent, and one killer track, and the script by director Max Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer, from a story by producer Richard Silverman, struggles to convince us Cole has the goods. The filmmakers (“Catfish: The TV Show”) work hard to pep things up, with drug-induced animations, characters addressing the camera, and playful tutorials on beats per minute. It’s all very breezy and all very familiar.
The hero acquires a mentor in James Reed (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty”), a boozy, washed-up turntable superstar fresh off the Berlin-to-Ibiza circuit, and he acquires a crush on James’s assistant/girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). The latter is lovely to look at and surpassingly dull; Ratajkowski might be a decent actress but she has no character to work with and, anyway, the camera’s more interested in her cleavage. As in the current box-office champ “Straight Outta Compton,” the inherent sexism of a music scene is celebrated rather than called out, or even honestly observed. But making people think doesn’t sell tickets.
Making people shake their booty-thang does, but “We Are Your Friends” is a disappointment on that score as well, despite a soundtrack by the respected British synth maven Segal. EDM is the latest marketing tag on a soundtrack to communal dance floor ecstasy that goes back through electronica, techno, house, disco, the frug — all the way to Paleolithic freak outs around the campfire. Only in one or two club scenes, though, do we in the audience sense what it is to lose oneself in a crowd undulating as one. “Saturday Night Fever” was a hit on radio even more than in the movies; by contrast, I can’t imagine this movie’s soundtrack racking up the downloads.
Anyway, despite the lip service paid to Cole’s gifts, EDM isn’t a genre built around the drama of individual persona — it’s about the crowd, not the artist. There are famous DJs like Diplo and Skrillex, of course, and maverick electronic auteurs like Dan Deacon and Jamie xx and Daft Punk, but the primary focus is on the celebrant and the immediacy of the experience. Even Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden” (2014), which got the music right, failed at making us care about its DJ hero.
It’s easier to care about Efron’s Cole if only because he’s so darn cute, and he’s trying so hard, onscreen and in his career. Personally, I like the kid; any former Disney Channel star willing to be peed on by Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy” is ready to go the distance to separate himself from the ranks of Troy Donahue/Bobby Sherman/Joey Lawrence/[insert your generational teen idol here]. Yes, it’s weird seeing the “High School Musical” heartthrob wigging out on club drugs, about which “We Are Your Friends” is both refreshingly realistic and awfully cavalier. But the filmmakers do honor Efron’s contract with his core audience. There’s a scene where Cole takes his shirt off, and it’s a Moment.
It’s one of the few.
“Sounds have soul — find new ones,” the boozy mentor urges the kid, and “We Are Your Friends” takes the advice with enough giggly seriousness to show Cole removing his earphones and actually listening to the noises of the real world — and then sampling them. But it’s worth remembering that movies can have soul, too, if their filmmakers are willing to do the work to find it.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.