In 2008, Scottish writer John Niven published his first full-length novel, Kill Your Friends: a hilarious, horrifying satire on the music business during the Britpop-saturated 1990s.
Based in part on the author’s experiences working in the industry – although to what degree is between him, his conscience and his lawyer – the book chronicles the fall and rise of Steven Stelfox: A&R manager, rapacious deviant and brutal killer.
Seven years and a shower of deserved critical acclaim on, Niven has adapted Kill Your Friends for the big screen, with Owen Harris (Holy Flying Circus) directing and Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road, X Men: Days of Future Past, Skins) starring as Stelfox. While the result is nowhere near as gleefully deranged or faecally fixated as the original, it retains enough of the insane, sparkling awfulness to make for an entertaining movie with the power to amuse, shock and repulse – frequently in the same scene.
It is 1997 and Steven Stelfox is highling through life in the Artists and Repertoire department at Unigram Records like a mescaline-addled Philippe Petit. With a colossal appetite for drugs, champagne and sexual depravity (all prerequisites for the job), Stelfox has no actual talent for talent-spotting – but then neither do any of his colleagues, with whom he is locked in a literal battle to the death for the Holy Grail: discovering and signing the next Spice Girls, the next Oasis, the next … Goldie?
It’s a dog beast dog and then stab dog in the balls world, and all of them live in secret terror of being outed as frauds. When he is overlooked for promotion in favour of even less gifted co-worker Roger Waters (James Corden), Stelfox goes into murderous meltdown.
Stelfox’s inner monologue, which serves as the film’s narration, is a ceaseless stream of sexually explicit, scatological black filth, by turns ghastly and glorious. Niven writes it with medical precision but when reciting these demented diatribes of revenge, destruction and Geri Halliwell swimming rivers of HIV-infected semen, Nicholas Hoult sounds like Jacob Rees-Mogg reciting a Fred West shopping list.
Olympian detachment is all very well, but when the actor struggles to match the warped brutality of the material it questions the validity of casting him in the first place.
Hoult has his moments – he provides a suitably ironic counterpoint to grotesque caricatures like Rudi, the manic German record producer, and excels in the scene where a disintegrating Stelfox writhes hysterically in front of the ‘Karma Police’ video, face pressed against Thom Yorke’s on the TV screen as he kisses his career goodbye – but someone older and tougher would have been more effective. Tom Riley, who appears as Stelfox’s nemesis Anthony Parker Hall, might have made a better fist of it.
Kill Your Friends successfully captures the visuals of the period (you can almost smell the beer stains on the carpet in the provincial nightclub where the Songbirds’ dance takes off, while the NME cover featuring disabled drum ‘n’ bass artist Rage is indistinguishable from the real thing) and the soundtrack, featuring Blur, Oasis, Radiohead and the Chemical Brothers, is as impeccable as it is evocative. But this is no mere nostalgia trip to an era where even the dullest of people could smoke indoors with impunity.
The violence is bloody enough and disturbing enough to leave an impression that lingers long after the strains of ‘Beetlebum and ‘Block Rockin’Beats’ have faded.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 6 November 2015.
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