By Brian Truitt | Gannett News Service
Zac Efron has a case of “Saturday Night Fever.”
Nearly 40 years after John Travolta famously hit dance floors in the disco-tinged 1977 classic, Efron is another young man finding his way in the world through nightclubs as an aspiring DJ in “We Are Your Friends,” in theaters Aug. 28.
“We’ve found a really cool way to tell this story and see what it’s like for someone following their heart and their dream,” says Efron.
Using a backdrop of electronic dance music, writer-director Max Joseph (MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show”) casts Efron as Cole Carter, a 23-year-old with a posse of pals who wants to be music’s next great record producer. He finds a mentor in James (Wes Bentley), an older DJ who has become jaded and complacent, though “Cole sees him as someone who’s lived the life he wants to lead,” says Joseph.
The relationship becomes a love triangle when Cole begins to fall for James’ college-age girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). “It ends up getting pretty intense and dramatic at moments,” Efron says.
That relationship, plus Cole getting caught between appreciating his friends and outgrowing them, turns his once-harmonic life into an emotional cacophony.
“No family is safe in a sense for him,” Joseph says. “He must learn to navigate on his own as an individual, which is what we all have to learn to do to some degree.”
Cole is a different character than Tony Manero, yet Efron acknowledges he definitely looked at “Saturday Night Fever” as a guide, with its story of a young man making sacrifices for his goals. And Joseph used the ’70s film as a tonal influence for his first feature.
“There is a gritty, realistic, almost documentary style at times,” the director says. “But when the music comes in, the film kind of lifts off and goes into this colorful, exciting world with fun visuals. It’s almost like a musical at times.”
Efron immersed himself in EDM, taking lessons from DJ Them Jeans (aka Jason Stewart) and learning to use intricate decks for performance scenes. He also worked with complicated music production software on-screen, “the element you see Cole working on most in the movie, and to this day, [the one] I understand the least,” the actor says, laughing.
Cole regurgitates the material of high-profile DJs such as David Guetta and Diplo in order to find his own sound, Efron adds, “but what he starts to learn is listening and putting your voice into a song or track is what really gives it meaning.”
EDM has cropped up as a major force in music at the same time young adults are struggling with what to do with their lives, Joseph says. So he saw “We Are Your Friends” as a chance to make a contemporary coming-of-age film.
“That genre has always stuck out to me and you can always infuse it with great energy as well as gravitas,” Joseph says. “They can swing really high and really low, and generally reflect on what’s going on culturally, too.”
Efron and Joseph both connected on the importance of brotherhood and friendships in a young man’s life, and in Cole’s group, he’s the wise, sensitive and introspective one of the bunch — made all the more impressive, at least for Joseph, because of Efron’s charisma.
“What’s great about Zac is he’s a natural alpha in a way,” the director says. “Your eyes go to him. He’s magnetic and he’s often the center of attention in all his films and also in real life.”
But as Cole, “it’s a much more internal, quieter performance, and people are really going to react to it in a positive way.”