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Are We Still Your Friends?: A Look at the Future of EDM in Film

Get ready for a slate of upcoming EDM films from Diplo, Will Ferrell, Calvin Harris, Will Smith and more.

by Steve Weinstein
Sep 8 2015, 12:00pm

As he made clear to Variety at the premiere of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron, the film's star and biggest booster, really wanted to believe the project would be the next Saturday Night Fever, only "our generation's version and it's electronic music."

Judging from the critical and audience response, there's little chance of that. As THUMP reported, We Are Your Friends has had one of the worst opening weekends of any major-studio release—ever.

Perhaps this flop has to do with timing. We Are Your Friends has arrived just as we've entered a post-EDM era; even Insomniac head Pasquale Rotella acknowledged during this year's EDMBiz conference that there is a trend against overly-commercialized, bro-tastic dance music—the kind that reverberates throughout the VIP clubs in We Are Your Friends. While Calvin Harris earned $6 million more than Jay Z in 2014, and megaclubs in Vegas and elsewhere are still racking in millions of dollars, a growing tide of fans, DJs, festivals and promoters are looking for something smaller, deeper, and more underground.

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Jeff Rabhan, a self-described "recovering artist manager" who heads New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, thinks that Hollywood executives are late to game. "Hollywood," Rabhan said, "is usually a day and a dollar short about edgy music. The fact is, it's not dangerous anymore. It's safe, and it's accepted."

That's not to say Hollywood hadn't noticed EDM before now. There was a brief spate of low-budget indies starting in the 90s, such as the British Human Traffic, through Circuit, A Midsummer Night's Rave, Groove, and It's All Gone Pete Tong. But there's a big difference between a low-budget indie and a major studio wide-release like We Are Your Friends.

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Even though corporate America and Vegas have embraced EDM, it's still associated closely enough with drug use to keep it from being squeaky clean. "Just as disco was associated with the gay male subculture, EDM has been associated with the drug culture," noted Rabhan. "Like rock in the 50s, it's been seen as dangerous music to seduce your children."

EDM "is both mainstream enough to be a familiar signifier but still has a certain amount of newness and danger," added Robert Fink, a musicology professor at the University of California Los Angeles' Herb Alpert School of Music. "It's safe and familiar enough but still some countercultural feeling. Not in real life, but in Hollywood."

The slate of upcoming films shows the happy-face side of EDM with projects like Diplo's Fox comedy about a young guy who emulates—who else?—Diplo. Will Ferrell is developing I'm in Love With the DJ, a road comedy about three women who travel to Spain to pursue their favorite plate-spinner. HBO's limited-comedy series Higher is also billed as a comedy, written by Trainspotting's Irvine Welsh, with Calvin Harris and Will Smith also on board.

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On the "edgy" side, Hollywood has eschewed drugs in favor of intrigue. In Lionsgate's Spinback, an Afghan veteran infiltrates the EDM world after he finds his DJ superstar brother has been murdered. Based on a series of novels, in Warner Bros.' Dead Spy Running, a young DJ on the run with a beautiful secret agent must avenge his M16 agent father's death while thwarting a massive terrorist threat.

DJ Tatiana

It's interesting that a DJ features so prominently in these films. Two upcoming biopics are based on real-life DJs with compelling backstories. A Warner Bros.' drama will be based on the true story of Tatiana, a DJ who cross-dressed to gain acceptance. And The Warehouse will pay tribute to the life of Frankie Knuckles and his role in the birth of house. There's even a behind-the-scenes biopic, Fox 2000's Insomniac, about Electric Daisy Carnival's guiding spirit Pasquale Rotella.

Kuntz, for one, is already predicting that Hollywood will do what Hollywood always does, take a promising trend and ruin it by jump starting too many projects that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. "All fringes that eventually come to the center either achieve critical mass or jump the shark," Rabhan ruefully noted.

Count among the skeptics deadmau5, who tweeted back in February, "One day they're going to make an EDM movie... and it will be about as good as Back to the Beach is now." The reference is to a 1987 parody of the zero-budget 60s movie, starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon reprising their roles as the eternal virgin being pursued by the good-natured horn dog amidst surfing and lots of dancing to lousy pop music. (Deadmau5 later remarked that We Are Your Friends' flop "restored my faith in music.")

A scene from Enter the Dangerous Mind

Deadmau5's February tweet landed a week before the opening Enter the Dangerous Mind, a thriller about a dubstep producer who descends into madness after he accidentally prematurely ejaculates during sex with a date. Big surprise: the film tanked.

The critics did love Eden, a French indie about a DJ in the early days of French Touch, as did the few who got the chance to see it. Unfortunately, Eden suffered the fate of most such movies—released in a handful of art houses in major cities.

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Despite having been pretty much ignored by dance music fans and everyone else thus far, Hollywood will continue to put the films mentioned above in the pipeline for one simple reason: desperation.

"Hollywood is always trying to find a way to connect with young people," Kuntz noted. "This is a group that is willing to get up off the couch and buy tickets. There's already a built-in audience. They are hoping the music is what's going to carry the film."

Meanwhile, if audiences do embrace EDM as a plot device, does that mean years from now we'll be subjected to movies like Rikki and the Flash and Dennis O'Leary's new TV show Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, where aging rockers complain about the crappy music the kids are listening to?