The title of director Max Joseph's "We Are Your Friends" might have taken a question mark: Who are your friends? The guys you grew up with, and are dragging you down? The habitués of Hollywood's seething, surging dance floors? The hustlers and drug dealers? The young woman with Sophia Loren's mouth?
Said determinations will chart the future of Cole Carter (Zac Efron), the hero artist of "We Are Your Friends," Joseph's debut feature and a movie that appropriates from a number of sources, including "Mean Streets" and "Spring Breakers." It has energy, a surfeit of personality -- courtesy of the very capable Efron, Emily Ratajkowski and a marvelous Wes Bentley -- and gives serious consideration to an art form that has always seemed the milieu of cultural kleptomaniacs, namely dance-floor DJ-ing.
Cole, an aspiring maestro, is taken under the wing of established star James Reed (Bentley), who mentors Cole not only into a sense of his art but a sense of himself, and teaches him what it takes to bring a room of dancers from inertia to hysteria -- through a calibrated strategy of rhythm, bass and physio-chemical crowd reaction. It's fascinating, especially for a viewer who's never given it much thought.
Less riveting are the dynamics among Cole and the buddies he grew up with on the other side of tracks, aka the San Fernando Valley. Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) are hustling, selling weed and promoting club nights in Hollywood when Cole is performing, but their dreams are smaller, and so are their souls. When they start working for an unscrupulous refinance operator named Paige (Jon Bernthal), it takes Cole a while to figure out what they're doing, but a while longer for his homies to stop stealing people's houses. But Cole, as one suspects from the beginning, is drifting away from them anyway.
Director Joseph tries, just hard enough, to translate late-night energy/atmosphere into what is mostly a bright and shiny movie, one that boasts some unexpected animation and a thoroughly predictable romance with Sophie (Ratajkowski), the older James' manager-lover, who's really fated to be with Cole. What really works well is the sound by veteran Rocky Quiroz and company, which gives the musical end of the movie a pulse, and makes it a feature one needs to see in a place that sells popcorn.
Films that rotate around spinning records
Zac Efron dons headphones in his latest film, "We Are Your Friends," in which he plays a DJ with a penchant for EDM. Here are four other films featuring actors who spun a few tunes playing DJs.
SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947) -- Screen soprano Deanna Durbin altered her image playing a female disc jockey who becomes involved with a millionaire (John Dall). And along the way Durbin finds a way to make beautiful music with her co-star.
PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971) -- This warmup for "Fatal Attraction" marked the beginning of Clint Eastwood's esteemed career as a director. He also starred as a DJ whose one-night stand with psycho Jessica Walter turns grisly.
GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM (1987) -- After failing to click in films like "Popeye" and "Moscow on the Hudson," Robin Williams scored a huge hit -- and an Oscar nomination -- for his role as an irreverent DJ on U.S. Armed Services Radio.
PIRATE RADIO (2009) -- This comedy about an illegal radio station broadcasting in the North Sea during the 1960s boasted a shipload of talent, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, as "The Count," a brash DJ trying to keep the station afloat.
-- Daniel Bubbeo