'Kill Your Friends': TIFF Review
Based on John Niven's cult novel, this darkly comic feature debut by Owen Harris revisits a golden age of fear and loathing in the music industry.
In the late 1990s, the UK music industry hit stratospheric new heights of success and excess thanks to a bumper crop of mega-selling homegrown bands including Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and the Spice Girls. Shortly before illegal downloads and plummeting CD sales brought the party to a crashing end, British pop enjoyed one last blazing golden age. Incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair even invited various rock stars into 10 Downing Street to celebrate the champagne supernova that some called "Cool Britannia". Fortunes were made, mediocrities became megastars, and Scarface-sized mountains of cocaine were consumed.
This is the backdrop to Kill Your Friends, a bracingly dark comedy based on the cult 2008 novel by the Scottish author John Niven. Drawing on his own experiences working at a London record company, Niven also wrote the screenplay for first-time Brit director Owen Harris, maintaining most of the book's key plot points but diluting some of its more grotesque, profane, scatological elements. Making its North American debut in Toronto this weekend, Kill Your Friends remixes a brutally funny novel into an entertaining if somewhat familiar big-screen tale of amoral, chemically-fuelled decadence. Domestic buzz will ensure brisk business when the film goes on UK release in November, with more niche appeal likely in overseas markets.
Nicholas Hoult (X-Men, Mad Max) stars as Steven Stelfox, a 27-year-old A&R manager at a major London record label. Responsible for finding and nurturing new talent, Stelfox is solely focused on scoring hit records that will boost his own wealth, status and career prospects. Although he knows the right cool names to drop when talking to co-workers and potential signings, he despises the romantic notion that music has any artistic value. "Do these look like the shoes of somebody who gives a fuck about the Velvet Underground?" he sneers.
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With his hollow-cheeked, dead-eyed, vulpine good looks, Hoult is well cast as Stelfox, a Machiavellian psychopath who will stop at nothing to achieve his career ambitions, from office back-stabbing to blackmail to murder. One key stumbling block is his immediate boss (James Corden), who duly meets a brutal end involving vast quantities of drugs and a baseball bat. But new obstacles soon spring up to thwart Stelfox, including a secretary who knows his dark secrets (Georgia King) and a dogged detective with musical ambitions (Edward Hogg). Before long the bodies start to stack up.
Niven cites screenwriter William Goldman's celebrated memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade as a key inspiration for Kill Your Friends, especially his golden rule about the Hollywood formula for commercial success: Nobody Knows Anything. The character of Stelfox also has some more obvious literary ancestors, notably the homicidal anti-heroes in Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho and Irvine Welsh's Filth. All three are strong, witty, knowing voices on the page. All three lose some crucial texture and depth in the leap from book to screen.
Harris and Niven try to recreate the book's confessional first-person tone by having Hoult intermittently talk directly to camera. But the literary Stelfox was much more misogynistic, homophobic, racist and generally contemptuous of humanity than his screen avatar. Possibly for commercial reasons, the film-makers have softened their protagonist's toxic nature a little, earning a 14A rating but sacrificing some of his diabolical charisma and lacerating wit in the process. The movie is tamer than the novel, almost becoming a celebration of overblown hedonism in Wolf of Wall Street mode rather than a portrait of a morally vacant, mentally unhinged monster.
That said, Harris still takes us for a deliciously nasty walk on the wild side, doing a solid job with his feature debut. Appropriately, the soundtrack features several big Britpop stars from the era in question - Blur, Oasis, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers - plus a propulsive original score by Junkie XL (Mad Max). Some strong cameos also stand out, including Rosanna Arquette as a New York record label boss and Moritz Bleibtreu as a mullet-haired German producer of pornographic techno anthems. While not quite as vicious and vulgar as it should have been, at least Kill Your Friends is a movie that understands the potency of cheap music.
Production companies: Unigram, Altitude Film Entertainment
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Craig Roberts, James Corden, Georgia King, Edward Hogg, Tom Riley, Joseph Mawle
Director: Owen Harris
Screenwriter: John Niven
Cinematographer: Gustav Danielsson
Editor: Bill Smedley
Producers: Gregor Cameron, Will Clarke, Len Blavatnik
Music: Junkie XL
Sales company: Altitude Film Sales
Rated 14A, 103 minutes