“Sounds have souls,” the wise DJ James (Wes Bentley) tells his apprentice, Cole (Zac Efron), midway through the surprisingly watchable new drama We Are Your Friends. He says this not to assert the soulfulness of the computerized whooshing and burbling and thumping sounds that power the electronic dance music that the movie chronicles, but to argue, rather, that some sounds have more soul than others. A real human’s handclap, an acoustic piano note, percussion created by a stick hitting a drum—all noises supposedly preferable to the ones making up the tracks that Cole uses to amp up Silver Lake clubs on Thursday nights. “Get your head out of that laptop,” James counsels.
It’s a surprising suggestion from a film attempting to tap into the new American dream that all you need is a Macbook and some ingenuity to achieve greatness. Cole and his club-promoting buddies in the San Fernando Valley scheme about ways to strike rich, idealizing the Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, who sold his little company for a billion dollars. Electronic dance music, of course, offers a particularly attractive vision of self-made superwealth. As plenty of people have observed in the past few years, the startup costs for aspiring to rockstardom are lower than ever. So at first it seems weird that, in We Are Your Friends, an elder statesman of the genre says that if you’re going to be a bedroom musician, you’d better have some instruments in the bedroom.
Though the movie takes plenty of detours into predictable subplots associated with pretty young things partying—a romance between Cole and Jeff’s assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), day jobs at a shady real-estate company, drugs as glamour and then drugs as tragedy—its core is a musical journey. Cole starts out as a mere entertainer, able to amp up a crowd by following a near-scientific recipe regarding bass and beats per minute, helpfully explained with voiceovers and animations. But taking things to the next level means crafting one exquisite hit. Until then, the music he makes is just, in the words of Jeff, “fine”—too derivative to conquer the world.
Here’s a spoiler so obvious that the trailer didn’t even try to hide it: Cole does, in fact, get his head out of his laptop, incorporating non-synthetic sounds into his music and thereby opening the door to fame. On an angsty jog three-quarters of the way through the movie, his iPhone dies, and suddenly he notices a world of found sounds ripe for the sampling. The results enrapture a festival audience and his mentor, even though the movie audience will note that it pretty much sounds the same as the knock-off dubstep he was making before, except with more staple guns and wistful voicemail recordings.
No matter. One of the big problems facing movies about music is that the original songs that are supposed to be genius probably aren’t actually going to be, because genius can’t be conjured by Hollywood whim. The point stands that Cole had to move from generic to specific, from imitating trends to trying to create new ones. That he achieves it by turning away from the computer is fitting, if not quite true to life. For all that it embraces Millennial stereotypes and fads, We Are Your Friends is an effort to show that electronic dance music can contain the same narratives—visionaries who connect to the masses by expressing individuality, defeating the “fake” with the “real”—that established styles from classical music to rock and roll do. In the recent movie Love and Mercy, Brian Wilson was depicted creating Pet Sounds by listening to voices in his head and giving bewildering, unprecedented instructions to session players. We Are Your Friends says the rules are basically the same for DJs like Cole.
And why wouldn’t they be? If the supposedly transcendent final jam of the movie doesn’t actually break sonic barriers, there are always real-world examples of EDM as art. The latest came this past week, when The New York Times published an immersive look into the creation of "Where Are Ü Now," the summer hit by Diplo and Skrillex, featuring Justin Bieber. It’s one of the weirdest and surprisingly moving songs to chart in a long while, and the Times video features the producers talking about how they tried to manipulate Ableton, the software the rest of the dance world uses, to do things no one had heard before. A lot of people have assumed that the song’s signature sonic element, the so-called “dolphin” noise, comes from an acoustic instrument, like a violin or a flute. But it turns out that it’s actually an extreme digital distortion of Bieber, unrecognizable yet still emotionally triggering. Whatever you call it, it’s a sound with soul.