Review: Kill Your Friends Dismembers London’s Music Scene
Set in London in the late 1990s, this adaptation of John Niven’s cult novel about the music industry feels a lot like taking cocaine: a buzz at first, then a prolonged transgressive high, which sinks into misanthropic disgust and ultimately leaves you feeling nauseous and a bit empty inside.
The filmmakers would probably be happy to hear this description; it is, after all, a piece of work that’s wedded to the white stuff. Kill Your Friends opens to the sound of snorting and the chopping up of lines then everything that comes after — the music, the manipulation, the murder — is all fuelled by the devil’s dandruff. Steven Stelfox, the film’s grasping and obnoxious anti-hero, even lists synonyms for the drug as a way of calming himself down whenever he loses the plot.
Stelfox is played by Nicholas Hoult, who resembles an adolescent snake but actually does a decent job of making us care about this congenitally cynical A&R man, all too happy to do as the title suggests as he works his way up the corporate ladder. Like him, the film is extreme in its vision of the hedonistic music scene in London around the heady time of Britpop and Blair.
“The whole point of the character is that he doesn’t know where to draw the line,” says director Owen Harris, “so if you start backing off, you undermine the satire. Stelfox has no discernible talent so he can go to a far darker place than anyone else: stitching up and undermining everyone is his superpower.”
But Harris confesses: “No, I don’t like Stelfox. You meet characters like him and they seem to have a certain charm but really they are dark and disturbed individuals. I like his ability to say things that everyone else doesn’t. He’s probably the most honest character in the film.”
It’s rude, brutal and graphic: a lads’ film — and by lads we mean that demographic defined in the 90s and fattened up on a diet of Nuts and Loaded, Blur and Oasis. Ladies beware, there’s not much for you here — with the one woman who does try to outfox Stelfox, his secretary Rebecca (Georgia King), winding up the victim of a squelchy comedy dismemberment.
Like The Wolf Of Wall Street, this is a period piece that uses the excuse of looking back at a supposedly more outré era to get away with lots of on-screen shock and phwoar. It works sporadically — the Aids and Auschwitz jokes are refreshingly abrasive for a bit, but the script, adapted by Niven himself, is overly insistent and tends to telegraph too many gags.
Unlike Mary Harron’s equally unsubtle film of American Psycho, to which Kill Your Friends is indebted at every turn (it’s basically a cover version), there’s no wily outsider’s eye so it lacks the nuance needed to be truly biting.
That said, it looks great and makes the most of its London locations. Harris says they used venues that people would have frequented in the 90s: the Electric Ballroom and Dingwalls for the club scenes plus Brixton’s Hobgoblin pub. The office scenes meanwhile were shot in a studio in Teddington. It has an authenticity that helps cover the cracks in a story.
And the music still sounds great, though a lot of middle aged men will be dismayed that tracks they haven’t taken out of rotation yet — Beetlebum, Setting Sun, Cigarettes & Alcohol — are now considered period pieces. And it should be said that some choices — Smack My Bitch Up for one murder scene and Karma Police when Stelfox is moping about — are just too obvious.
Hoult is backed by a solid comic cast worth mentioning: James Corden as a wigged out, clueless music exec and Jim Piddock as Stelfox’s whining boss are especially good, while Tom Riley, Osy Ikhile and Moritz Bleibtreu liven things up in smaller roles.
What would Stelfox be doing now in the era of Simon Cowell and Spotify? Harris says, “I think he’d be wearing a thick knit jumper and pretending to be in the band. If anything, the music industry has become more disposable, the way bands are formed out of competitions. It’s even more cut-throat — that’s not to say talent doesn’t break through but shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent make it more difficult. I think Stelfox would be revelling in it — he’d just look a little bit different.”
Kill Your Friends is in cinemas from 6 November.
Last Updated 04 November 2015