"Manchester England England/Across the Atlantic Sea/And I'm a genius genius…"—Hair (Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado)
Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) loves the adrenaline rush of life. As a reporter for Grenada Television, he leaps off mountains in search of stories. But for a brief period in history, from 1976 to 1992, Wilson was at the center of a pop music whirl-a-gig, as Punk became New Wave became Acid House. And it was all manufactured at Factory Records, home of Joy Division and Happy Mondays. 24 Hour Party People is the real story—more or less—of those riotous years and the people who led the way.
The history of punk music is built on deception, on image. Malcolm McClaren invented the Sex Pistols, or at least molded the image of a bunch of raucous kids into a pop music phenomenon. Read Henry Rollins' reminiscences of all the posers he encountered during his touring days with Black Flag. These were the days of the great rock and roll swindle, where any kid with a dream, a handful of mimeographed posters, and a good hairstylist could become a counterculture god. Just don't tell your friends about the hairstylist.
In England, the place to be seen was the Hacienda, owned by Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson. We first meet Wilson in 1976, at a tiny concert (only 42 people) featuring the Sex Pistols. Inspired, nearly every member of the audience forms a band: Joy Division, Simply Red, Buzzcocks, Happy Mondays. Wilson senses a cultural earthquake coming, and jumps on board by opening his own club, then a record company. As he says, "It was like being on a fantastic fairground ride, centrifugal forces throwing us wider and wider. And it's all right, because there's this brilliant machine at the center that was going to bring us back down to Earth. That was Manchester. That was the Hacienda."
24 Hour Party People is the story of Manchester, a factory town that bred self-destructive geniuses like Joy Division's Ian Curtis (Sean Harris in an uncanny recreation), Happy Monday's Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham), and producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis, looking more like Peter Jackson than Gollum). Director Michael Winterbottom slips the film in and out of mock vérité mode, as Tony Wilson narrates his story directly to the audience as if he has time warped into a documentary of his own life. With improvised dialogue and handheld digital video cameras (transferred to film), the movie has a rambling, impromptu quality that fits well with the heady enthusiasm of the Factory crew.
Steve Coogan gives a stunning performance as he juggles what are effectively two characters in one: the Wilson of the present breaking out of frame to explain himself in the past. The result is a clever parody of documentary style. Although his Wilson announces that he is merely "a minor character in my own story," 24 Hour Party People is driven by the ego of Tony Wilson, who announces to everyone repeatedly that he is from Cambridge, quotes Boethius, and compares Shaun Ryder to Yeats. As his wife Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) says, "He doesn't care what they say, as long as they're talking about him."
But Wilson also looks out for his friends and embraces the excitement and chaos of these times, signing contracts in blood and encouraging Hacienda patrons to loot the office on the club's final night. For instance, in an early scene where Lindsay catches him with a hooker, then has sex with his friend Howard DeVoto (Martin Hancock), the real DeVoto shows up to remark that the incident never happened. We suddenly wonder, how much of this is real and how much is legend?
Does it matter? If the music of Manchester was fostered on image making (irrespective of its angry young artists' insistence on authenticity), then the legends of 24 Hour Party People are just an extension of the mythmaking. Winterbottom and company approach this all in fun, a joyous game of flouting authority, even their own. Pure anarchy.
The Manchester scene was a carnival ride gone out of control. And, as Wilson sums it up, "For a while it's even better [when the machine breaks], because you're really flying. But then, you're fucked, because nobody beats gravity." This is the dark side of the Factory Records story: the suicide of Ian Curtis (and Joy Division's reemergence as New Order), the drug-addled rantings of Shaun Ryder. As we watch the collapse of the Hacienda, as drug dealing and gang violence overwhelm rave culture, we see Wilson cling to his belief that everything will be alright, as long as nobody sells out the dream.
MGM presents 24 Hour Party People in an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 audio mix, although the film itself seems to revel in that inventive, do-it-yourself approach that mirrors the punk aesthetic. Unfortunately, that improvisational quality that serves the film so well does not translate into a decent commentary track for Steve Coogan and producer Andrew Eaton. They seem pretty unprepared and talk very little about the actual making of the film, preferring to ramble about their memories of the time period the film covers. There are long gaps and a lot of arbitrary comments about things happening on screen.
The real Tony Wilson takes on a second, far more successful commentary track, in which he jokingly refers to the film as a "piece of shit" one minute and a "work of art" the next. He seems decidedly less egotistical than the movie character on screen and views the commentary track as a chance to even the score for a film he believes was made "to take the piss out of me." But in the Manchester spirit, he takes it all in fun and tells some great stories about the real incidents recreated for the screen. Wilson also turns up in a 6-minute featurette, where he admits to being "embarrassed and flattered" at being the central figure of the film. Overall, the real Wilson is rather ambivalent about his role in the Manchester music scene and fought during the filmmaking to shift the focus more toward Ian Curtis and Shaun Ryder (a battle he arguably lost).
Another featurette, "Manchester the Movie" (11 minutes), covers some of the real-life history behind Winterbottom's film. There are also 11 deleted scenes, all on digital video before their conversion to film, a trailer, and a photo gallery (no behind the scenes shots, just movie stills).
Few films about music hold up if you are not a fan of that particular style. 24 Hour Party People is a marvelous exception. 24 Hour Party People is a thoroughly entertaining look at a tumultuous time in pop music, from "the dawn of punk to the death of acid," in the words of the real Tony Wilson. The film inventively tweaks the music documentary style while highlighting some of the great tunes to come out of the Manchester scene. Add excellent performances across the board, and this film is well worth watching. This is not just about the music, but about cultural change and a group of artists whose sense of adventure allowed them all to soar, even for a brief time.
Unfortunately, the supplemental materials on the disc are a mixed bag, covering far more of the real history (as if this merely was a documentary) and very little of the making of the film itself. Director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce are sorely missed in particular. Still, the film stands on its own and is a joy to watch.
Higher powers have cleared Tony Wilson of all charges, although that may only have been the drugs talking. The court demands another spin of "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and then we are in recess for some clubbing.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Steve Coogan and Andrew Eaton
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