London, 1997: with BritPop in full swing, ‘A&R’ man Steven Stelfox struggles to make his way through the music biz minefield, willing to go to any lengths to find The Next Big Thing – or, at least, a killer ‘choon’.
The shaper edges of former A&R man John Niven’s scabrous, black-hearted 2008 novel, a kind of music biz mash-up of American Psycho and The Player, have been blunted during its transition to the big screen. A year or two ago, one might have added “understandably,” but in the post-Wolf of Wall Street world, Kill Your Friends feels tame, toothless, and curiously sexless.
The year is 1997. BritPop and The Spice Girls rule the charts, and A&R (‘artists and repertoire’) executive Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult) is desperate to discover, and hopefully sign, the next big thing in a business that isn’t so much dog eat dog as, in Niven’s words, “dog-gang-rapes-dog-then-tortures-him-for-five-days-before-burying-him-alive-and-taking-out-every-motherfucker-the-dog-has-ever-known.” A coke-addicted, misogynistic misanthrope who’s a long way from his last hit record, Stelfox is ready to do whatever it takes – yes, even kill his so-called ‘friends’ – for one more day at the expenses-fuelled trough.
Kudos to Hoult (who also executive produces) for finding himself a rotten plum of a role: with his near-ominpresent voiceover and House of Cards-style asides and soliliquies, he’s in virtually every scene. Alas, like the equally game Jude Law in the Alfie remake, all the scene-stealing, camera-hogging charisma in the world won’t save you if what’s unfolding around you is as calamitously misjudged as a wedding singer doing a medley of Rammstein and Throbbing Gristle.
The main problem is that everyone besides Hoult is doing the kind of TV acting that stopped being acceptable around the time the Spice Girls were euphemising orgasms as “zig-a-zag-ah.” The performances ring so false, in fact, that even the film’s many witty nuggets of music biz wisdom – many lifted near-verbatim from the source novel – feel contrived and unconvincing. Kill Your Friends’ other major issue is that, while the music business itself may be scuzzy, films of this kind are supposed to employ a seductive, potentially aspirational guide (a Henry Hill, a Jordan Belfort, a Patrick Bateman) to seduce you into their pseudo-glamorous worlds, before piercing the veneer and showing you the dark underbelly, where the sharks circle “with hypodermic needles for teeth.” Kill Your Friends’ depiction of the BritPop-era music business is scuzzy and deplorable from the get-go, largely due to Harris’ sub-‘90s-TV direction, cheap-and-nasty cinematography and absence of production value. It could have been this year’s Trainspotting. Instead, it’s a train wreck.
Nicholas Hoult does his best to bring Niven’s weapons-grade scumbag to life, in a film hobbled by amateurish acting and absence of production value. It’s not just a bad cover version of the book. It’s a Jedward cover of your favourite song. ★★