There are three things you need in order to become a successful EDM DJ—at least according to Zac Efron's character, Cole, who tells us in voiceover: "All you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track." Sounds dispassionate, maybe (while also maybe even true), but this late-summer EDM bro-flick, We Are Your Friends, is well aware of this brand of millenial disenfranchisement. Upon introduction, Cole and his three friends—Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer)—seem to be more concerned with getting hot girls out to clubs, making money, and becoming famous (all in an effort to eventually leave their current dump of a home in San Fernando Valley) more than the actual music itself. EDM is hot right now, and for those with only "some talent," EDM is the ticket to Hollywood—supposedly. Cole lives at Mason's parents' place, fixing rooftops and doing obscure household jobs like "working on the pool" during the day, when he's not spinning at a club on Thursday nights, where he only gets paid in free drinks as the opener to more well-known (read: better paid) DJs. It's at this club he meets the famous James Reed (played by a manic-looking Wes Bentley), a middle-age-reaching DJ who the kids seem to revere. After one fateful night (and one over the top PCP hallucination scene later), James becomes Cole's ticket up the starry ladder. But of course, complications arise—mostly of the heart.
Because sitting at the right hand of James is his assistant and girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), whose beauty inspires a lot of cleavage-lingering shots from director Max Joseph (of MTV's Catfish). Of course there are shortcomings to the one main female character of this bro-y story, with Sophie acting as more of a catalyst, as Cole falls hard for her, all the while knowing that choosing to be with her is a betrayal to James, which directly betrays his goal to make it big. Not that logical thinking stops him, Cole being a man who thinks with not his head but rather his, er, heart-on.
Where We Are Your Friends suffers is, it's neither very feel-good nor very real-life. The fall-outs come fast—James finds out about Cole and Sophie, another major event puts their life in a whirlwind—but everything ties up so easily. Fights break out left and right, but even the punches feel empty. By the end, Zac Efron, as always, gets everything he wants: the girl, the gig, that one track to fame. Even the side story—in which his shady boss (Jon Bernthal) at a real estate company rips off a poor unsuspecting client—gets a sloppy clean-up while the credits roll, like some afterthought. Issues are addressed and then resolved hastily and unrealistically.
Not your cup of tea? Mine, either. But earlier this summer, another dance DJ film was released: the French film Eden (by director Mia Hansen-Løve), a two-decade-spanning story of Paul (Félix de Givry), an aspiring DJ who plays "New York garage with a Parisian twist." It was being touted as a "Daft Punk movie" for a while, though that description is deceptive—there is a fictional portrayal of the famed helmet-wearing duo (pre-helmets), but only in a couple short scenes. If that sounds disappointing, don't let it: Eden is better than what would have been a "Daft Punk movie." Paul, who starts out as a teenager in the beginning of the movie, becomes obsessed with French house music and its corresponding nightlife scene, which makes him pursue a career as a DJ, much to his mother's avail.
With Eden, there's less to eye-roll at. Perhaps it's the early '90s setting in the beginning that we look at through the rosy lens of nostalgia—rather than the insufferable millennial talk of Instagram and hashtags—or perhaps it's the foreignness of European dance clubs that's more easily romanticized. Eden's Paul finds his passions misplaced—he loves the music too much, and everything becomes secondary. Friends and romantic interests ebb in and out of his life, including an American woman (Greta Gerwig in one of her worst roles, surprisingly), and a loving French girl named Louise (Pauline Etienne), who, too, becomes an ex eventually. Paul's pure love for music (inspired by influential New York DJ Larry Levan at his Paradise Garage nights) hinders him from evolving to a more profitable style as the years go by. He does find some success as one-half of DJ duo, Cheers—even coming stateside to play MoMA PS1—but without much financial stability or sustained popularity.
"Maybe it's time to open up to other styles," a friend tells Paul, and there's one scene where he watches, resigned, at a young woman DJing from her laptop. The times have changed. Daft Punk is on top of the world, and the reluctant Paul? He's playing someone's backyard pool party.
Mia Hansen-Løve co-wrote the script with her brother Sven, whose life the film is based on, so there's a tenderness, but also a frustration felt by those around Paul. Why can't he break his cocaine habit, get his life together, get out of debt, find a sustainable career, etc.? Paul is naive in many ways, and there are a lot of could-have-beens that make you reconsider your own life and your own artistic passions. Aside from the unrealistic look of Félix de Givry's un-aged face (he looks the same at 19 as he does at 40, with the addition of some measly facial hair), the story feels far more real—too real, actually—than the shiny, Blockbuster-wrapped We Are Your Friends. The Efron flick feels hallow in its love for music—from the publicity-circuit EDM tour to the handful of cameos (Dillon Francis, Alesso, Nicky Romero, etc.), which considering their already rabid fanbase should sell itself. Cole does have an inspiring moment of using real analog sounds—what he knows from his own life—to create music, but there are no stakes or sacrifices to chasing that dream. This song is birthed from one montage of Cole recording the sound of Mason fixing a roof and Sophie's message on voicemail. Cute, but, shallow. Though Eden is less satisfying in regards to Paul's life—the girls and the gigs fall through—it's a more passionate picture of someone who loves music, and suffered because of it.