This is one of the worst reviews I've ever written, but I had to get something down about what's the third best film of the year so far. If there are three clear, bright, shining Cadillacs of 2002, they are Y Tu Mama Tambien, Spider-Man, and 24 Hour Party People.
By the time Factory Records founder and Hacienda nightclub owner Tony Wilson tells us in voice-over late into 24 Hour Party People , "Timing is everything," it's virtually redundant. Because what the inspired and brilliant new British comedy about the Manchester music scene understands most importantly is that once time isn't an issue, it becomes your biggest asset. Using the sharpest tools in cinema's shed -- shock editing, flashbacks, flashforwards, freeze-frames, and breaking-the-fourth-wall narration -- director Michael Winterbottom tells his story from a perspective unique to film and makes it fresh, surprising, and of course, timely.
24 Hour Party People is a loose biopic of Wilson that brings us back to the late 1970s and early-to-mid-1980s epoch of British music, "Madchester." With the perspective only 20 years can add, Winterbottom is able to twist characters and events around until he makes his point lucidly and with great gusto. The director's judicious cutting and free-form structure allow us to witness Wilson's trip through time in two hours, which is exactly what ten years must have felt like to someone riding high on his favorite art form. As played by ingenious comic Steve Coogan, Wilson is a driven, intelligent, principled businessman whose business happens to be philanthropy -- this is why he signs an anti-contract contract in his own blood. "Factory Records is not a company," Wilson preaches, "it's an experiment in human nature."
Like his central character, Winterbottom is exercising an experiment in time manipulation. He shows us Coogan as Wilson, narrating to the camera in the moment while speaking with knowledge gleaned later on. Wilson then moves around to show us other characters, some of whom are actors playing roles of rock stars who show up as other characters 10 years (or one hour) later. And sometimes, these characters will tell us that the rock star playing them didn't do what Wilson (and Winterbottom) says their character did. This device culminates in a scene where Coogan as Wilson hosts a game show that the real Wilson hosted, and Coogan's Wilson is being directed in the studio by the real Wilson 20 years later -- while both Wilsons are being directed by Winterbottom now.
What does this all mean? It means that the Factory Records era of the Manchester music scene was a time whose significance grows when you step back and look. Those of us familiar with Factory's first great band Joy Division and their suicidal lead singer Ian Curtis will understand the portent of the scene where Curtis (played with energetic menace by Sean Harris) laments that David Bowie never followed through on his threat to die by the age of 25. And after Curtis does hang himself (at 24, beating Bowie's dare by a year), his band becomes New Order and when they play the Hacienda years later, there's a striking shot (blink and you'll miss it) of Wilson watching what looks to be a lot like Curtis dancing in the midst of the ravers.
24 Hour Party People can also be read on much more immediate and entertaining levels than this metaphysical, chronological conundrum: it's just a whole lot of fun to watch. One of the great cuts occurs when Wilson, taking a job doing a news report on England's struggling social climate, tells us that "gravediggers in Liverpool refuse to bury the dead," and then we see Curtis having a seizure on stage in front of hundreds of screaming fans. Shortly after this, a bizarre Happy Mondays show leads to a scene of Wilson doing a news documentary on a duck that can herd sheep. Indeed, in a music scene where the coolest member of the Mondays, Bez, does nothing but dance and sell drugs, a sheep-herding duck is far within the limits of reason.
The crackling detail and keen insight of Frank Cottrell Boyce's script keeps us from wondering why we see more of forgettable bands like A Certain Ratio and nothing of Tim Booth's band James. This isn't just a mockumentary for Britpop fans to go and nod their heads about how solid their taste is. It's an allegory that speaks to politics ("My heroic flaw was my civic pride," Wilson reports), to artistic creation ("Shaun Ryder is the greatest poet since Yeats" is spoken after Ryder's Happy Mondays return from a Barbados crack binge having spent 200,000 pounds of Factory's money recording an album without vocals), and most importantly, to commerce. "I was free from the dilemma of selling out because I had nothing to sell out," Wilson boasts. It's telling that "Blue Monday," the biggest selling 12-inch in English history at the time was a record that Factory lost money on with each sale. The heart of the film lies in our sympathy to Wilson -- a champion of the Sisyphean struggle who is so self-critical that when he has an enlightening vision of God (who looks just like Tony Wilson with a white beard), God says to him, "It's a pity you didn't sign The Smiths."