Director Michael Winterbottom brings his dense style to 24 Hour Party People, about as ironic a title as one can imagine for a film by the guy who made such masterstrokes of bleakness as Jude and Welcome to Sarajevo. The thing is, 24 Hour Party People is only occasionally a bleak movie. Mostly, it celebrates the abrasive-cum-charming, too-arrogant-yet-oddly-endearing personality of Tony Wilson, a local TV personality in Manchester, England, who gave the Sex Pistols their broadcast debut. He went on to create Factory and Hacienda, an experimental, Utopian-idealistic record label and dance club that changed the face of pop music not once but twice — with the epochal Joy Division, which became New Order after bandleader Ian Curtis hanged himself on the eve of their first U.S. tour, and with the disheveled Happy Mondays, who were the popular face of acid house and helped launch rave culture.
24 Hour Party People has a colorful, multilayered look well-suited to its subject matter, with eye-popping colors that glide and skitter across the screen during the credits sequences, which are as difficult to read as any I can remember. Though Winterbottom’s decision to give ace cinematographer Robby Müller a digital-video camera muddies the image, the DIY aesthetic coheres with the faux-documentary conceit that drives the film. Throughout, Winterbottom dodges skillfully in and out of reality. For starters, an early sequence depicting a key Manchester performance by the Sex Pistols is carefully intercut with real archival footage of the band in head-spinning fashion. The actors portraying musicians learned to play their instruments for the featured performances, and the sound mix goes a long way toward putting across what these bands would have sounded like in a club environment.
The tumble into the rabbit hole is narrated by Manchester-born comedian Steve Coogan, who plays Wilson with reflexive brio, constantly commenting to the audience on the action taking place on screen. For instance, he explans the metaphorical significance of an opening scene where he attempts to glide over the English countryside and introduces the real veterans of the Manchester scene who have bit parts in the film — and occasionally turn to the camera to deride the filmmakers’ versions of events. One cameo was lost on the cutting-room floor. “It’ll definitely be on the DVD,” Coogan deadpans.
The inevitable failure of the Factory is brought home in quick snatches of dialogue that illustrate Wilson’s general lack of business acumen. Upon hearing that the elaborate sleeve for a New Order single is so expensive that the company will lose five pence on each one, Wilson shrugs it off. “They sell fuck-all anyway.” In Coogan’s very next voiceover, he notes matter-of-factly that “Blue Monday” became the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time and moves on without further comment. Later, God flips him shit for not signing The Smiths when he had the chance.
Even so, the story here wisely revolves around the evolution and disintegration of the bands involved, and Wilson’s role as smooth-talking circusmaster, rather than trying to tell in more than cursory detail the complicated story of the bunch of layabouts who moved in and out of each other’s lives while they ran the company. The result is a delightfully entertaining time-capsule gloss on reality. Where it stops you dead is in the scenes involving Ian Curtis, whose onstage tics during a performance of the furious “Transmission” are reproduced with utterly creepy precision by Sean Harris. And anyone who ever loved that band is likely to get cold shivers during the funeral-parlor sequence that takes place, quite literally, over the singer’s dead body. There’s a sense of urgency hanging about the Joy Division story that the movie doesn’t quite recover once it switches to documenting the rise of the more buffoonish Mondays, but the scenes showing the last days of the Hacienda have a nicely elegaic quality.
Much of this will seem like inside baseball to folks who don’t know Manchester from Liverpool, or who can’t tell the difference between Joy Division and Durutti Column, though the film is pretty generous in doling out information about the whos whys and wherefores of the scene, even if it consistently skirts the details. For pop mavens, however, it’s great, geeky fun — a little slice of heaven. (Too bad MGM, which unceremoniously dumped Ghost World on the market last summer, doesn’t seem to have learned anything about skillful marketing of a niche picture. The opening-night crowd I saw this with in New York was distressingly thin.)