(24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2002, 117 mins)
When a film opens with Steve Coogan hand gliding in the Pennines, it has your attention. With Ride of the Valkyries thundering in the background, he shifts rapidly between the thrill of flying and the terror of plummeting towards a barbed wire fence, eventually crashing to the ground. He is playing Tony Wilson, the news reporter who went on to found Manchester’s infamous Factory Records. The Film is Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which charts the rise and fall of Wilson’s record label and the legendary acts that he discovered in a way that manages to inform, entertain, assault the senses and, at times, completely baffle.
Following this ill-fated outdoor pursuit Tony Wilson complains that he feels unfulfilled in his job, and that features on hand-gliding are below a journalist who, as he frequently reminds us, “went to Cambridge”. When he is one of just forty-two people in attendance of a Sex Pistols concert he seems inspired, realising the cultural significance of the event despite the low turnout. He decides to move into the business of promoting bands, and starts his own gig night at a Manchester club. It is at the first of these gigs that he meets Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) and his band, Joy Division. So impressed is Wilson by the band that he decides he wants to promote them himself, and so begins Factory Records, a record label which promises to give the talent full creative control and ownership of their own material. Success soon follows and, as Wilson is thrown into the world of sex, drugs and all night partying, the money begins to evaporate and his relationships fall apart. Wilson gives Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) thousands of pounds to record an album with his band Happy Mondays in Barbados in a last ditch attempt to save the record company, and when the band returns having recorded an album with no vocals, it spells the end for the label.
Michael Winterbottom has always been one for experimenting with modes of address and 24 Hour Party People exemplifies this, particularly in its treatment of the fourth wall. From the very opening scene onwards Tony Wilson narrates the action from within, addressing the camera and reminding us that we are watching a film about events that really took place. This helps to sort out the varying degrees of accuracy attributed to the film, some scenes are exaggerated or even completely made up and in these moments Wilson will normally address the camera and admit as much. This is particularly well done in a scene in which Wilson catches his wife, Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) having sex with Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) in a toilet cubical. As Tony walks away from the scene the real Howard Devoto, playing a janitor, tells the camera “I definitely don’t remember this happening.” By employing techniques such as this Winterbottom is able to give a sense of the era, as well as the mythology that has emerged from it.
Winterbottom is also experimental in style, joining many of the film’s scenes together with titles which flash and flow across the screen, creating a collage effect similar to something viewers are familiar with from music videos, as well as creating a sense of how quickly time flew passed for those living the 24 hour lifestyle. While most of the visual experimentation is highly effective and works well, scenes such as Shaun Ryder witnessing a UFO over Manchester, or Tony seeing a vision of himself as God are not as successful. The tone throughout is predominantly fun and laid back, but these scenes detract from the poignancy that is a near constant undercurrent to the comedy.
In terms of performance there is a lot to admire. Coogan is superb as Tony Wilson, portraying him as self-important and arrogant yet enthusiastic and charismatic; yes he is a total twat, but we like him nonetheless. Coogan’s comic capabilities go without saying but what impresses here are the moments when we see Wilson’s smile fade, his confidence falter. There is particular emotion generated in the scene when Tony abandons his pride and begs Lindsay not to leave him. Sean Harris has a thankless chore on his hands, playing a cultural icon on whom the film’s central message hinges. He carries this off well portraying the moody, socially awkward Ian Curtis off the stage. There is however a slight problem with the performance scenes as it just does not look like he is singing. This would be difficult to help as Ian Curtis had such a unique voice, but perhaps longer shots that disguised his mouth would have been preferable. This is a small complaint however as, even given his limited screen time, there is no denying the impact of seeing his angelic figure rest in a coffin, and this is a credit to his performance. Elsewhere Danny Cunningham is perfect as Shaun Ryder and Andy Serkis is hilarious and disturbing in equal measure as producer Martin Hannett. The supporting cast is also very interesting as it features a wealth of household names, with Rob Brydon, Simon Pegg and Peter Kay all making appearances. By casting the fresh talent of the day and delivering his film in an edgy, avant-garde style Winterbottom seems to wish his film to echo the musical era it portrays, new and exciting talent creating a new and exciting style.
In doing so he has been successful, creating a film which does justice to one of British music’s most important eras and stands in its own right as one of the finest films of its time. For all its excess and fun, 24 Hour Party People is a nostalgic reflection on a bygone era, but not one that pines for its return. Factory records is, like Ian Curtis, all the more legendary in death. It will never grow old, and will never change. Its mythology will continue to live on and that is what Winterbottom promotes. As Tony Wilson says, quoting John Ford: “when legend becomes fact; print the legend”.