It’s hard to imagine a time when music went through a process as painstaking as needing to involve the uncaring and often unlistening ear of an A&R man. And yet, back in 1997, the last zenith of the era of Britpop in London, Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult, building on his increasing arsenal of “adult” roles) was just such a “tastemaker” in the music industry. The only thing stronger than his lust for the next hit is his lust for the next bump/poke/shot/whatever drug happens to be on hand.
Unfortunately for Steven, the music business is changing right in front of his very eyes, with the end of ’97–during which this film takes place–being the last time A&R men had god-like clout in Britain. The satirical nature of the narrative naturally lends itself to the absurd, hence our ability to take it with a grain of salt when Steven kills people. And yes, like Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal American Psycho, murder goes hand in hand with personal distaste for mankind–though, in this case, that mankind is a very specific breed limited to the music world. Then again, the consumption of music is extremely human in a global sense, making Steven’s contempt perhaps more universal than merely the confines of his business.
Based on John Nivens’ 2008 novel of the same name, there is, indeed a very literary quality to the film’s tone, directed by Owen Harris, who shows considerable promise when taking into account this is his first feature. Unlike American Psycho‘s film adaptation, Nivens–who wrote the screenplay as well–opts to leave the protagonist’s internal dialogue in by using it in the form of voiceover. This adds to the darkly comical nature of the movie, which takes shots at everyone from the Spice Girls (reimagined as Songbirds) to Madonna (she only has raw ambition going for her, a common criticism). Steven hates music, thinks it’s all shit–a frightening irony that makes one think about just who is really behind the music we end up hearing on “the radio.” His fear of spending money on nurturing the right “talent” comes to play when he purchases the British licensing rights to a German techno song called “Why Don’t You Suck My Fucking Dick?” Though the track is a major hit with club goers in Germany, it turns out not to be so much anywhere in Britain. This calls Steven’s already fledgling credibility into question with the head of the label, Derek Sommers (Jim Piddock) who puts another person in charge of the A&R department in the wake of Steven killing his “friend” who ended up getting the job, Waters (James Corden). With a police officer on his case who really just wants to get his foot in the door of the music industry, even if it’s merely as a songwriter, Steven must also now contend with Rebecca (Georgia King), a secretary who might just be even more ruthless than he is. What it all amounts to is, of course, nothing. Chasing money through music is a grand, pointless gesture, emphasized by Steven’s definition of the meaning of life, which is, “To drive your enemies before you and hear the lamentations of their women.” If that’s the case, the music industry was, is and will certainly continue to fulfill its purpose.