As an account of the transformation of England’s most notorious industrial wasteland into a global dance music mecca, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is far from exhaustive. Although billed as a candid look into the Manchester music scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the film only briefly touches on the most significant personalities within that milieu. Instead, it concentrates on the autobiography of Tony Wilson, manager of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, club promoter and chief director of Factory Records.
But there’s nothing wrong with that. Wilson’s peccadilloes, from marital infidelity and constant drink and drugs to fantastically profligate spending sprees were marvelously over the top. Any time spent dissecting song lyrics or probing the unhappy childhoods of Madchester musicians would only detract from the spectacle at hand.
This thrilling debauch begins slowly, with footage of the mountains, moors and derelict factories that captures the drab monotony of life in England’s industrial North. Enter the Sex Pistols, in a mix of grainy concert footage and clever reenactment. Even though the tiny crowd is mostly nonplused by Rotten and company, the gig provided enough inspiration that Wilson started a nightclub. Further, several of Manchester’s hippie contingent went punk and formed their own bands.
Wilson’s club nights exceeded expectations, and Ian Curtis and Joy Division provided a melancholy new soundtrack for England’s still future-less youth. The club and the town soon swayed to the beat of their New Wave dirges. Sean Harris as Curtis is especially mournful; his emaciated frame threatens to vibrate out of control with the dismal energy of his songs.
Aside from the occasional throbbing party scene, the bulk of the energy in 24 Hour Party People comes from watching Tony Wilson bounce around his comrades, his lovers and his day job as a TV host. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Wilson is glib, sardonic and strangely sincere. In contrast to other English music business svengalis like Brian Epstein or Malcolm McLaren, Wilson clearly believed all his own hype and lived his ideals, destructive as they may have been. Rather than draw up a proper contract with the bands he managed, Wilson wrote a one-paragraph pledge in his own blood, giving his bands complete artistic freedom and license to leave at any time. Although this made for better music, it left Wilson and Factory Records deep in debt and without much recourse for turning things around.
Frequent asides to the camera by Coogan comment on the story. Without breaking character, Coogan will refer back to the very film he is in, pointing out cameos by aging band members from Wilson’s own label. In other instances, he narrates the events of Wilson’s life almost as an afterthought, such as mentioning a second marriage that for some reason wasn’t significant enough to include in the story as it happened. Even though most of these asides reflect badly on the Tony Wilson myth, one can’t help but be suspicious that they serve to deflect criticism by admitting to faults rather than allowing the viewer to make their own judgment.
There’s no doubt that Wilson was a cad. His behavior towards his friends and lovers was unsupportive; occasionally it was terrible. Yet like most exasperating eccentrics, Wilson seems to have had a talent for beguiling his enemies and bolstering the confidence of his friends at the most opportune times. It’s easy to deplore his excesses, but the ends probably justified the means. Even if he couldn’t turn a profit to save his life, and even if his exaggerated claims that his label and clubs invented the modern rave scene aren’t true, Wilson’s knack for catching the next big thing was instrumental in putting Manchester on the worldwide party circuit map.
24 Hour Party People. Rated R. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, Starring Steve Coogan, Sean Harris and Danny Cunningham. Now playing at the Lagoon Cinema.