24 Hour Party People (2002)
“The unbelievably true story of one man, one movement, the music and madness that was Manchester.”
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, Lennie James, John Thomson
Synopsis: In 1976, Tony Wilson sets up Factory Records and brings Manchester’s music to the world.
There’s a scene in 24 Hour Party People in which Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) enters the loo of a seedy nightclub to get car keys from his wife, who happens to be engaging in sexual intercourse with Howard Devoto. Retrieving the keys, and admonishing his wife for having penetrative sex in revenge for him merely receiving oral pleasure from a hooker, Wilson walks out of the toilet, passing a cleaner who turns to the camera and claims to have no knowledge of the event. The cleaner is actually the real Howard DeVoto.
This is one example of a technique director Michael Winterbottom uses throughout this movie. With a skill that ranges from deft to clumsy, he repeatedly disengages Coogan from the story to make a direct to camera comment; he introduces major and minor characters and reveals future plot twists — ‘he will try to kill me, he will sleep with my wife,’ he lists the cameo appearances in the film, and explains that a scene he has described isn’t in the film — but will probably be on the DVD. It’s a device that works surprisingly well, even though it shouldn’t, but then, in a docudrama/biopic that strays into the surreal with comical encounters with UFOs and interviews with God, straight-to-camera dialogue is almost normal.
Coogan must have seemed a compulsory choice for the role of Wilson — he reputedly based his TV character, Alan Partridge, on him — and there’s a lot of Partridge in Coogan’s portrayal. It’s a little irritating at first, but despite this Coogan manages to make Wilson quite an endearing — if slightly buffoonish — character, and you can’t quite understand why he seems to attract such contempt from those around him (Genius. Poet. Tw!t. read one of the taglines for the movie, with pictures of Ian Curtis, Shaun Ryder and Tony Wilson respectively).
Tony Wilson was a Granada TV reporter who hosted, back in the 70s, a regional TV show that championed, in its own small way, the likes of the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Wilson was so enthused by the music scene in Manchester and Liverpool that he and Alan Erasmus recruited local producer Martin Hannett (the tragic subject here of a fierce impersonation by Andy Serkis) to produce a record featuring Joy Division (who would later evolve into New Order), The Durutti Column, John Dowie and Cabaret Voltaire. The record was a success: the Factory record label grew out of this success and would go on to record James and the Happy Mondays among others, as well as opening the legendary Hacienda nightclub in Manchester.
Early on, Coogan explains, after we have seen him crashing a hang-glider in the course of a news report, that the scene is symbolic and refers to Icarus, the character of Greek legend who flew too close to the sun. From the outset it’s made clear to us that what we are to see is a modern spin on a Greek tragedy — and there is tragedy aplenty in Factory’s story — although whether Winterbottom is comparing or contrasting Wilson’s story is open to debate.
Although an aura of impending doom hangs over the entire film, and becomes increasingly oppressive as it reaches its final scenes, the tragedies within the story are never dwelled upon purely for emotional impact. There’s a death scene and a funeral and the story moves on, and this is where one of the movie’s real strengths lie. It doesn’t try to feed us emotional cues, it doesn’t try to make us like any of the characters, it merely tells its story — albeit in a decidedly quirky manner. At times you do feel as if you’re merely watching a bunch of scenes that have been cobbled together, but Winterbottom captures a feel of what it must have been like to be a part of such an extraordinary and explosive organisation, and an equally exhilarating time in British music history (the sense of history is a thread that is continually reinforced throughout the film). The use of digital video also works well (for a change), especially in the early scenes, which closely resemble the grainy feel of newsreel from the Seventies.
As always, the downfall of an empire is always more engrossing than its rise, and it is nothing short of horrifying at times to see the fundamental errors made by Wilson and the others at Factory — difficulties with drug dealers at the Hacienda? No problem — make them the doormen so that they can control the situation. Trying to dry heroin addict Ryder out so that he can finish the CD that will shore up the Factory’s creaking structure? Fine, send him to Barbados where he can get hooked on crack. And as it all falls apart around their ears you realise that you’re not really watching a modern version of Icarus, you’re merely witnessing the inevitable collapse of a house of cards built against all the odds by spiteful, boorish children — there is no comparison, after all.
Given the dislikeable nature of its characters, one suspects 24 Hour Party People’s version of events isn’t too far from the truth (although liberties are taken with the timeline), and it certainly boasts the energy of the music and times it portrays. For those who lived through those times, and who have knowledge of the people and events it depicts, the film will provide a fascinating insight into the lives of some of the people who were shaping that era, but it will never make you care for them. Which, in a way, is testimony to its quality because, despite the mean-spiritedness of the movie’s characters, you will never be anything less than absorbed while watching it.