It’s a cut throat industry, that music business. Infested with sharks, drowning in money and drugs, easy sex, a world of “loaded dice and poisoned chalices,” where success is dictated by luck or timing. It’s a wonder anybody gets out of there alive.
Or without killing somebody.
“Kill Your Friends” is a murder-your-way-to-the top dark comedy, a music biz saga based on John Niven’s darkly comic novel.
It’s anti-heroic narrator is Steven Stelfox, cleverly given a kind of sexually ambiguous ruthlessness (as substitute for talent and hard work) by Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”).
Steven quotes Conan — the Barbarian, not the ginger chat show host. You know the bit about reveling in crushing “your enemies — See them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”
He sneaks into the boss’s office and breaks into his computer to get an edge, steals new issues of music industry mags intended for colleagues and shreds them, steams open envelopes.
He’s an “A&R Man,” that’s artists and repertoire — the talent scout responsible for finding the next big thing — singer, songwriter, band.
“God, I hate bands!”
OK, maybe not a band.
And he’s hellbent on taking over the A&R department at Unigram Records in 1997 London. It’s the Cold Play era, and Steven is indulging self-absorbed Brit rappers, ditzy/slutty girl groups with no singing talent, that sort of thing, trying to keep his gig.
Mainly, though, he’s partying and clinging to his lazy, doltish rival (James Corden) to keep him from getting promoted by pretending he’s his best friend, feeding him cocaine and urinating on him when he passes out — anything to make Roger look bad at work the next day.
Only it doesn’t work. Hapless Roger (Corden) is in line for a bump when the sabotaged head of A&R (they always get the blame for hard times) is sent packing. Steven, half-calculating and coke-fueled with rage, beats Roger to death. And then shows up at the office as if nothing has happened, expecting the job Roger was to get.
A cop (Edward Hogg) might close in. Or he might not. He’d love a record deal himself.
Steven narrates the tale (a literary crutch) to the camera, ripping on colleagues and clients alike.
“This pair of sex offenders have just raped up to the tune of 40 grand.”
But Hoult lets us see just how tough it is for even a mediocrity with Machiavellian talents to survive in this world, in his more vulnerable moments.
“These decisions are made under the influence of drugs, alcohol, peer pressure and fear.”
Nobody wants to be the numbskull who misses out on the next Cold Play or Spice Girls.
“Kill Your Friends” wallows in the depravity of the it, the inanity of the music and the mendacious morons meant to pass judgement on it, deciding who gets a shot and who labors in obscurity. The wallowing including too many club scenes, too many stoner orgies, and too much blood.
It’s like a Bret Easton Ellis takedown of Britpop.
But the few human touches stand out, and the deck stacks up against Steven at every turn. Even killing his would-be boss hasn’t kept him from being out-of-step with the scene, the music or musicians. An indie pop band The Lazies is pushed by his protege (Craig Roberts) and ambitious young secretary (Georgia King, quite good).
And Steven just doesn’t get it.
“Indie kids really think what they do matters,” he sneers to the camera.
As you’d expect from a movie based on Niven’s script of his own novel, the dialogue stands out and stings. Steven’s promise of recording success is followed by the unspoken promise that he’ll “drop you faster than a Plymouth hooker’s knickers” if you fail.
This could have been a lighter picture, sort of a semi-dark Nick Hornby spin on music. That might have been less accurate, but more watchable.
But Steven is a hard character to keep even at arm’s length. He’s a paragon of what’s wrong with music, the script would have us believe. He’s out of step and out of date, getting blasted at parties and humiliating himself, coming on to talent and chasing them away. He’s a clueless cliche even in 1997.
And yet he is just as likely to deliver a hit as the talented people he encounters, including his biggest threat, an A & R legend played by Tom Riley.
The cynicism destroys any chance that a sense of fun — even perverse, murderous fun — will ever creep into “Kill Your Friends.” It’s as if Hoult is too clever at playing too venal and loathsome for his and his movie’s own good.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, alcohol and drug-abuse, sexual situations with nudity and profanity
Running time: 1:42