Black comedy, Blackmail, Craig Roberts, Drama, Drugs, Ed Skrein, Georgia King, James Corden, John Niven, Junkie XL, Literary adaptation, Murder, Music industry, Nicholas Hoult, Owen Harris, Review, Unigram
D: Owen Harris / 103m
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Craig Roberts, Georgia King, Joseph Mawle, Edward Hogg, Tom Riley, Jim Piddock, James Corden, Ed Skrein, Rosanna Arquette, Moritz Bleibtreu, Dustin Demri-Burns, Osy Ikhile, Ella Smith
For a movie that’s set in 1997 and focuses on an ambitious A&R man, Kill Your Friends actually has little to do with the music of the time (except when it comes to its soundtrack), and instead creates its own musicians and bands for the audience to groove to. It’s a curious thing to experience, that such a movie would choose to ignore the music that was around at the time, especially when there was so many good records out there. ’97 was the year that The Verve gave us their Bitter Sweet Symphony, Chumbawamba were Tubthumping, Natalie Imbruglia was Torn, and Elton John reworked Candle in the Wind in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales. But Kill Your Friends operates in a bubble of its own making, restricting itself to a narrow musical world where the deal is all important and not the music, and the means absolutely justifies the end.
That the world of the A&R man is a cutthroat world where everyone is out to succeed at the expense of everyone else shouldn’t come as any surprise, but the movie is often grindingly obvious in its approach to this idea, and the level to which it takes this idea is often glaringly excessive. The movie’s anti-hero, Steven Stelfox (Hoult), is determined to get to the top and he’s not too worried how he gets there. When we first meet him he’s in the company of fellow A&R man Waters (Corden), snorting cocaine and mixing drug-fuelled cocktails in an attempt to render his colleague either dead or too far gone to function. (Sadly for Steven, Waters’ ability to ingest hard drugs and still come to work the next day is quite impressive.)
With record deals to be made and hits to be manufactured, Steven takes a young talent scout called Darren (Roberts) under his wing, and starts to teach him how to get ahead in the music business. But Steven’s idea of “teaching” consists of constant reminders that no one knows anything (as in the movie industry?), and to misquote Sparks, that “talent isn’t an asset”. When an old friend of Steven’s, Rent (Skrein), introduces him to the girl band he’s managing, it’s no surprise that they’re four tuneless, talentless wannabes, manufactured into producing a “surprise” number one record. It’s at moments like these that the satire slaps the viewer in the face and yells, “Did you see what we did there? Did you?” If the movie wasn’t so tiresome and cynical, the viewer wouldn’t be either.
As Steven connives and manipulates and eventually murders his way to the top, the movie does its best to get the audience to root for him, but it’s not actually possible. Despite Hoult’s best efforts to make him likeable, Steven is a crude caricature of a man, his better qualities stifled to the point of non-existence and lacking any kind of moral attributes – however deeply buried – for the viewer to latch onto. He’s an ambitious, soulless, predatory, evil-minded bastard, a lower-tier monster who doesn’t deserve to make it to the top, or gain our attention. There’s a moment when he’s talking to a band in a club and they’re asking him what will happen if they sign with his record company. For around thirty seconds Steven regales them with the various ways in which he and his company will abuse and mistreat them, and then spit them out when they’re no longer viable. It’s meant to be funny and disturbingly honest all at the same time, but instead it’s another heavy-handed example of what we already know: that in the music industry you should always beware: because you’re swimming with sharks. (And, predictably, it’s all a dream sequence.)
With the movie lacking subtlety or appreciable flair throughout, there’s little beyond the traditional topics of sex and drugs and work envy to get excited about. Owen Harris’s direction consists of throwing the characters into sharp relief, such as when Steven’s PA, the equally ambitious Rebecca (King), blackmails him into helping her reach the top. It’s not exactly a surprise – this movie doesn’t do surprises – and most viewers will have been waiting for her to drop the faithful servant routine, but as one of the few characters we can have some sympathy for (at least to start with), her transformation into calculating co-conspirator smacks of laziness on the part of John Niven (here adapting his own novel).
With so much amoral, yet banal behaviour going on, it’s amazing then that the movie retains as much energy as it does, claiming the viewer’s undivided attention from time to time (often in its club scenes) and using said energy to push the rest of the scenes through in a kind of bizarre version of cinematic life support. There are also sporadic moments of humour, but none memorable enough to help the movie overall, and certainly not enough to help erase the memory of Edward Hogg’s dumb-as-a-bag-of-nails policeman, a character so brain-curdlingly simplistic in his creation that he’s not even of the rank of caricature.
But what of the music itself? As created by Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg), the original songs are the movie’s best feature, an apropos mix of Nineties indie vitality and modern day stylings, anthemic when necessary, and completely free of any relevance to the story or the plot. You could take each tune and play it in a club or music venue and attract people’s attention. It’s the same here, and leads the viewer to wonder if there’s a cut of the movie where every scene takes place in a club or at a concert. But anyone paying attention will appreciate the dichotomy of what the movie is saying, that the music isn’t important, that it’s the last element of the deal that’s taken into consideration, but thanks to Mr Holkenborg and his “killer” tunes, it’s a boast that Kill Your Friends gets spectacularly wrong.
Rating: 4/10 – if you’re going to make a movie about the cutthroat nature of the music industry, then it’s important that your characters are at least halfway relatable – a point that Kill Your Friends ignores deliberately – otherwise it will look and sound like the naïve fantasy of a teenager; with thematic nods to American Psycho (2000) that are awkward and misjudged, this is a movie that skimps on the pleasantries and drags the viewer through a mire of its own choosing, and without ever offering said viewer any reward for the experience.