Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy
Idle Musings About 24 Hour Party People
First, I should probably confess two things before I begin my review proper, (1) I’m not a huge fan of the Manchester music scene, though I do like what little music I’ve heard, even if my experience with it pretty much begins and ends with a pair of Best of...
compilations (Joy Division and New Order), and (2) while I’ve always admired the few films of Michael Winterbottom that I’ve seen, as they’ve never been less than interesting, my reactions to them pretty much stops at admiration (even if 24 Hour Party People
is his best film that I’ve seen). Even though Winterbottom should be credited for tackling various subjects in various styles, I’ve always felt a lack of personal investment in his pictures, which can be demonstrated by comparing 24 Hour Party People
to another postmodern melange based on an English music scene, Todd Hayne’s Velvet Goldmine
. Besides being much more visually interesting and creative (almost all of the stylistic innovations in 24 Hour Party People
occur in the script, but to be fair, I don’t know how involved Winterbottom was in the script), you get a sense of personal investment in glam rock, it meant something to Haynes, even if the film’s relationship to musical history is even more tenuous than 24 Hour Party People
(though the later film’s relationship to music history is purposely one-sided and distorted). Then again, it may just be harder to gauge Winterbottom’s personal stake in the film, as 24 Hour Party People
affects a distanced, ironic attitude toward it’s subject matter.
24 Hour Party People
tells the story of Anthony Wilson, a Manchester TV personality (he insists that he is a reporter, a “serious journalist,” he had a degree, from Cambridge, but Granada TV only has him do puff pieces, human interest stories, like interviewing a dwarf who waters elephants at the zoo, or an elderly canal worker; however, Winterbottom uses Wilson’s television career to comment on the social context/unrest of Thatcherite England by showing news clips from the late 70s and early 80s) and impresario of Factory Records (and later the Hacienda Nightclub)
. Wilson is played by Steven Coogan, a stand-up comedian from Manchester who apparently did impersonations of Wilson in the 1980s. I’m not familiar with the real Wilson, but Coogan’s interpretation is probably the best part of the film, mostly unflappable, ironic detachment, occasionally allowing peeks of real emotion to seep out. The most noticeable example occurs while Wilson is trying to talk an author into writing a book about Joy Division, right in front of Ian Curtis’s casket; afterwards, when Wilson is left alone with the body, he tenderly kisses Curtis on the forehead and says goodbye. I also like the scene when Wilson expands on Curtis and his music, showing happier times just before Curtis’s suicide, when everyone was at the Factory singing “Louie Louie” in a drunken stupor, having a rocking good time. In a movie so concerned with surface appearance (after all it is about a guy who pays £30,000 for a table), it’s interesting to see another side of a story that is so well known (something that Wilson himself comments upon).
With a style of dress slightly out of step with those around him, a “real” job, and a college education (which leads to a hilarious pretentious streak, Wilson compares key events in the Manchester scene to the Last Supper, the Sermon on the Mount, and the French Revolution; he compares Manchester to Renaissance Florence; he drops words like semiotics, situationists, and postmodernism when forced to defend the Nazi-inspired name of Joy Division; and there is his quite wordy introduction when hosting the British-version of The Wheel of Fortune
; oh, and he continually compares several of his musicians to Yeats), Wilson does not seem likely to be at the center of a musical revolution, especially given the chronic lack of respect given to Wilson from the other musical insiders (he’s frequently called a “cunt” by just about everyone he meets; the English posters for the film label Wilson a “twat,” compared to Ian Curtis’s genius and Sean Ryder’s poet).
But at the center he is, as the film charts the rise and fall of Factory Records via Wilson and his relationship with two key Factory bands, Joy Division (and later New Order, though we don’t see much of them after the costly release of the “Blue Monday” 12” single) and then Happy Mondays. At one point, Wilson says that he is a minor character in his own story, it’s a load of BS, like a lot of what Wilson says; to give you a taste of his own philosophy, Wilson quotes the famous lines from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This comes right after a scene, when Wilson catches his wife in the toilet having revenge sex, with Howard DeVoto of the Buzzcocks, but as Wilson exits out the door, he pauses to say that DeVoto and his wife insist that this didn’t happen. The real DeVoto appears in the scene, cleaning the bar’s bathroom, he stops and also denies it happened.
This isn’t the only time that one of the real players that figure in the film appears in the film, many of the key players in the Manchester scene, including Wilson himself, appear in the film in bit parts. At one point, after Coogan/Wilson points out the real Wilson (the TV director of Wheel of Fortune
who criticizes the Coogan/Wilson’s speech about philosophy and the “wheel of fortune.”), the film offers a quick montage of the other real people in the film, even pointing out one who was cut from the final cut of the film, saying he’s sure it will appear on the DVD. 24 Hour Party People
revels in it’s movieness. The film is a mixture of real documentary footage and recreation. Wilson breaks the fourth wall, repeatedly addressing the knowledgeable audience, and his monologues are both funny and informative. We also get a bit of digital surrealness (though the digital images are obviously cheesy, and I would say on purpose), mostly courtesy of Ecstasy, one of many drugs that makes an ugly appearance later in the film. Actually, the appearance of Ecstasy, the Happy Mondays, and the Madchester rave scene are heralded by flying saucers. In another, earlier scene, the Ryder brothers of the Happy Mondays poison pigeons, and we get some pigeon POVs as they swoop around the brothers’ heads. And at the end of the film, after the collapse of Factory Records, God himself appears to Tony Wilson, in the guise of Tony Wilson, chastises him for not signing The Smiths, and then basically tells him to buck up.
What to make of all of this? For one thing, it’s a celebration of the music (well duh), even if most everyone is a solipsistic, drugged-out asshole ( at least they are interesting solipsistic, drugged-out assholes). There’s joy at the 1976 Sex Pistols concert and their is joy at the final night of the Hacienda (the beginning and the end), even if the music and the ambiance has changed remarkably (from grungy-post industrial Manchester to the bright lights of Ecstasy soaked late 80s. early 90s Manchester). As Wilson watches his kingdom crumble, all of various characters, even the deceased ones (Ian Curtis and producer Bernard Manning) dance to the music on the crowded dance floor, much like they did at the sparsely attended Sex Pistols concert that opens the film. But the film is also a portrait of Manchester itself, the city is as prominent in the film as the music; Wilson is a real hometown boy, and extolls the virtues of Manchester as much as the music. The music and the city, it made the man, or the story of the man (and the film is nothing but upfront about the fact that it is just a story). That’s the thing, it’s just a story, and the story of Anthony Wilson, Factory Records, and Manchester does not really depend on the truth, it depends on the legend. And when you have a storyteller like Anthony Wilson, who cares about the truth?