You Have Been Watching…Kill Your Friends

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There have been some rather sniffy reviews about the film version of John Niven’s novel Kill Your Friends (and you can take that as a pun if you like). For me, most of those critics are missing the point. The argument seems to be  that it has few redeeming features, but the film isn’t bothered about redemption, or approval for that matter. It is violent, dirty, immoral and perverse – just like its source material – and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. It’s a John Niven adaptation. What did they expect?

The year and era are crucial to the book and film. 1997, with hindsight, was the beginning of the end of days for many people. A landslide victory for a Blair government who would go on to cheat and lie to everyone, (at least the Thatcher and Major governments were open about their hatred of the poor). New Labour feigned compassion, they convinced many they were on our side, and boosted by the marketing ploy that was ‘Cool Britannia’, they managed to fool most of the people for a good deal of the time.

Never was this more in evidence than by those Number 10 dinner parties attended by many of the cultural movers and shakers of the day, and the least rock’n’roll events in British history. This sort of marketing was exactly the sort of thing which many in the music business were trying to replicate as the smarter ones could see that the good times, in terms of record sales, were coming to an end and that such high-profile promotion was a way of postponing the inevitable. Kill Your Friends is not really about the music business at all. It’s about selling – music just happens to be the commodity.

By ’97, Britpop was over, or at least breathing its last. The defining records of the time, (Parklife, Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, Different Class, I Should Coco, A Northern Soul, The Bends, etc) all came out in ’94 and ’95. By 1997, Blur were discovering American guitar music on Blur (titling their fifth album after the band is as clear a sign of wanting a new beginning as they could give) and Oasis would release Be Here Now, one of the most spectacularly over produced records of the time, and one fueled by cocaine (these two things may not be unconnected). Radiohead release OK Computer, defiantly not a Britpop record, and Pulp were preparing to unleash the dark yet brilliant Help The Aged. If ever there was a record describing the bitter end of a party, it’s that one. In fact, it would make a great soundtrack to a Kill Your Friends sequel.

New Britpop music from that year included Stereophonics and Mansun, hardly inspiring, but it had really reached its nadir in 1996 when Menswear got a single in the Top 10. After that things were never to be the same. The Spice Girls’ domination of the world really kicked in in’97; not the first band to be put together by committee (hello to The Monkees), but the returns on this investment were so huge that this would change how music was created and sold, and how the repertoire or the artist would be controlled, like never before. One of the best lines in the film is when one character accidentally foresees a future of Pop Idol, X Factor and The Voice. Indie music, which is for all intents and purposes what Britpop was, would become properly independent once again, on the whole, and would be all the better for it.

None of this is particularly original, in fact I’ve just read Craig Maclean in The Independent saying basically the same, but I wanted to put Kill Your Friends into context. This is not when everything was well in the record business, it was beginning to fall apart so it stands to reason that those who worked in it would do the same. It was the last days of Rome, and the behaviour Niven describes is as much about desperation as it is naked ambition. It’s not so much rotten as rotting. The film reflect this, using dark hues and muted colours (there’s a lot of grey, beige and jaundice yellow on show), and it is beautifully and consistently shot to match the mood.

Nicholas Hoult is Steven Stelfox, an ambitious and amoral A&R man who hates himself, but who hates everyone else more, especially musicians. While this is undoubtedly Hoult’s film, and very good he is too, he is ably supported by James Corden as the gullible Waters, a harmless idiot who gets promoted over Stelfox and   Edward Hogg as DC Woodham, a Columboesque policeman who has dreams of a music publishing deal which makes him ripe for exploitation. Joseph Mawle is sleazy and seditious as Telfox’s mentor Trellick and Submarine’s Craig Roberts is superb as the wide-eyed innocent music fan, Darren, who is gradually infected by those around him.

The female characters in the film don’t get a lot to do, but, again, that’s the point. Like nearly everywhere else where decisions were made in the ’90s, the music business continued to be mainly an all boys’ club, and the treatment of Steven’s PA, Rebecca (Georgia King) and the all-girl band Songbirds is testament to that, as is the  case with every other woman Stelfox encounters. They include a fantastic and too short cameo by Rosanna Arquette as US record company bigwig, Barbara.

If you’ve read the book and loved it, then you’ll love the film. If you hated it you’re not going to see the film anyway, I presume. If you have never read Niven’s novel you can read my review of it here and perhaps decide if it’s for you. However, if you are a fan of Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho (the comparison is unavoidable), or Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, then I think you’ll enjoy Kill Your Friends.

Is the film as good as the book? No. It doesn’t go into the careers of Ellie Crush and Rage as much as I would have liked, but then it couldn’t do that in the time allowed. Nor could it contain all of the references and musical in-jokes to be found on the page. Because John Niven knows that of which he writes inside out the voice is true, even when the events are hideous. It’s the reason the book works as well as it does, and subsequently it’s the reason Nicholas Hoult’s performance also rings true. I said at the top that some critics seem to be missing the point, and you may be asking “what is the point?”. Kill Your Friends is all about the worst of human behaviour, and it is unrepentant about that. There is no redemption or happy ending, in a similar manner as Trainspotting, and nor should there be. This is Lord Of The Flies meets The Wolf of Wall Street, with a soundtrack to die for.  If that sounds like a good night out, (and it does to me) then Kill Your Friends is for you.

Here’s the trailer:

The film would fail if it didn’t have a relevant soundtrack, but it does, and there’s a great mix of the obvious (Blur, Oasis, Radiohead) with the pop music of the day (Mark Morrison and Blue Boy). One of the best tracks, and one which unites the two, is ‘Setting Sons’ by The Chemical Brothers featuring Noel Gallagher on vocals, so here it is:

Here’s the audio version of this review: