24 Hour Party People
(director’s cut [ho ho] of review in Film Comment, summer 2002)
by Simon Reynolds
No British city has a greater sense of self-mystique than Manchester. Populous enough to swagger convincingly as a counter-capital to London, yet still eclipsed by the latter’s concentration of political, financical, and media power, Manchester has developed a retaliatory superiority complex: Northern suss and spirit versus those smug, effete "Southern wankers." Near the close of 24 Hour Party People--Michael Winterbottom’s lightly fictionalized movie about Factory, the legendary Manchester post-punk record label---TV presenter and Factory CEO Tony Wilson explains his motivations in terms of "civic pride". This peculiar provincial patriotism is the heart of the film, but like so much in Party People, it’s so thinly fleshed out it’s hard to see how someone not familiar with A/ the Factory story and B/ Britain’s class-inflected regional antagonisms, would even notice it.
Along with its damp climate and post-industrial grey decay (much improved since the 1976-92 period covered in Party People, thanks to urban regeneration funding), Manchester is justly reknowned for music: a series of epoch-defining bands, from Factory’s own Joy Division (and its successor band New Order) through The Smiths to Stone Roses, Happy Mondays (the other legendary Factory group), and Oasis. 24 Hour Party People’s cardinal flaw is its failure to convey what made Joy Division and Happy Mondays special, why they transcended local cult status and captured the national imagination.
Music qua music has always been a challenge for the rock movie, which is why they tend to stick to the ‘Behind The Music’ dirt ‘n’ drama of interband conflicts, mismanagement, drug abuse; the dream of fame-and-fortune achieved only for it to turn nightmare. Neither music’s germinal mysteries (jam sessions, the intracranial moment of inspiration) nor its raptures (the solitary listener’s bliss, the crowd’s collective fervor) lend themselves to narrative.
Nonetheless, for a good thirty minutes, Party People seems to have pulled it off. The reconstructions of the Sex Pistols 1976 performance at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall (attended by a scant 42 people, who became the kernel of the local punk scene) and of an early Joy Division show transmit the real rush of rock’n’roll history in the making. And the film seems to have struck an inspired balance between docudrama realism and postmodern self-reflexive wit. Wilson, played by the brilliant British comedian Steve Coogan, addresses the camera Alfie-style, narrating his own story and helpfully pointing out when things have been distorted or made up for extra mythic impact.
Almost immediately after Joy Division enter the picture, though, Party People begins to unravel. The group’s vocalist Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) was worshipped at the time as a seer who tapped into the currents of dread and anomie pervading post-punk Britain. In Party People, you get no real sense of this complicated, troubled figure. Approaching Wilson for the first time at a punk gig, Curtis greets him with the words "you’re a cunt". For no explicable reason, the movie leaves out what he said next, "’cause you haven’t put us on television": a reference to Wilson’s So It Goes, at that time the only TV show featuring punk bands. So instead of demonstrating Curtis’s ambition and hunger for stardom, the movie creates the impression of aimless, loutish aggression. Similarly, Curtis’s epilepsy (a latent trait he seems to have somehow harnessed for the convulsive trance-dance of his stage performance, only for it to get out of control) is not set up at all, and his suicide is botched, appearing as a seemingly impulsive act. In a typically pointless gesture of historical fidelity, we see Curtis watching Herzog’s Stroszek’s on TV a few hours before hanging himself---just about the only hint of Curtis’s true artiness. As a result of all this, when Wilson gazes at Curtis in the chapel of rest and declares "that’s the Che Guavera of rock there," the eulogy seems comically overstated and utterly unsubstantiated by what we’ve seen so far. Still, Curtis fares better than Joy Division’s other members, who aren’t even formally introduced by name.
As for the label's other two geniuses, Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), the maverick producer who had so much to do with the eerie spartan Factory sound, comes across as little more than a foul-tempered drunk, while not a single shred of evidence is mustered to sustain Wilson’s repeated claim that Happy Mondays’s singer Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is the greatest poet since Yeats. What is actually depicted--sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rave’n’roll--makes the Mondays look more like a Mancunian Motley Crue.
Wilson hogs the screen, with much time devoted to an initially hilarious but steadily diminishing running joke about the trivial stories he’s obliged to cover on his TV show (midget zoo keepers, a duck who can round up sheep). Yet Wilson’s own complexity is sold short. Cambridge-educated Wilson was steeped in the renegade canon of anarcho-surrealist literature and politics, peppering Factory output with allusions to Lautreamont and naming his nightclub The Hacienda after a Situationist slogan. The movie gestures at Wilson’s underlying seriousness, but only in a mocking, borderline anti-intellectual way. Mostly he comes over as an odd mix of buffoon and visionary, a naif-with-integrity whose contracts (signed using his own blood) declared only that the bands retained ownership of their music and were free to leave whenever they pleased.
Party People jumps swiftly from Curtis’s 1980 death to the reign of Happy Mondays as house band at The Hacienda, during the 1988-91 "Madchester" period when the club was an Ecstasy-soaked mecca for ravers across the land. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Factory is how it survived for so long given the sporadic nature of Wilson’s A&R skills (he passed on The Smiths, for instance, and between JD and Mondays signed an awful lot of undistinguished bands—Kalima anyone?) and his lack of business acumen. New Order’s 1983 hit "Blue Monday" was the biggest selling 12 inch single of all time, but lost Factory a fortune because its lavish Peter Saville cover cost more than the label’s profit margins. When it comes to Factory’s eventual collapse (partly caused by Happy Mondays’s profligacy), the movie glosses over the real pain and humiliation this must have involved. Instead, we see Wilson closing down the Hacienda with a massive shindig and inviting the revellers to ransack the offices for computers and other strippable assets.
Like so many post-Trainspotting Brit-films—think especially of the ill-starred rave flick Human Traffic—Party People is relentlessly lively, as if convinced that the youth market will not stand for stillness or sombreness (essential, surely, if you wish to convey a sense of Manchester’s Ballardian desolation in the 1970s, so crucial to Joy Division’s atmosphere). Characters are constantly shouting and swearing, and there’s barely a scene that doesn’t involve drink or drugs. On the plus side, the movie has plenty of gags, energetic hand-held camera work, and some striking set-pieces---like the scene where the teenage Shaun Ryder and brother poison three thousand pigeons on top of an apartment block. It’s quite possible, especially if you have absolutely nothing invested in the idea of Joy Division or the whole post-punk era, that you’ll find 24 Hour Party People highly entertaining---a feel-good movie about suicide, drug fuck-ups, and business failure, yay! Then again, to actually follow the film on even a basic narrative level, you’d need to know a lot about Factory already. Here is Party People’s paradox, its Achilles heel of "negative crossover": the movie is sure to irritate the only people truly equipped to watch it, while those with no real emotional connection to the subject will most likely be confused and leave the theater having gleaned little sense of what was at stake in Factory’s struggle.