The film 24 Hour Party People embodies the punk spirit it documents. But before I go into director Michael Winterbottom’s freewheeling, go-for-broke filmmaking style, I just want to say the movie’s kind of got old-fart appeal, being about the beginnings of British punk and the Manchester bands (Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays) who succeeded it in the 80s. The very few actual survivors of the Manchester 80s music scene who appear in the film look really, really old. I emphasize that because it seems so amazing that the punk revolution, which sneered at sacred cows from the Beatles to David Bowie, happened so long ago now. That was our revolution – the one that turned out the hippies, rejected wealth-driven spirituality and embraced a primitive brawling yelp. The movie brings back that hedonistic, artistically explosive era and plunges the viewer into its excesses, recreating the scene so successfully that it reminds you of how much plain fun it was (more than it seemed at the time, with all its confusion, drugs and attitude).
One thing the movie captures very sharply is how hard it was to believe in punk rock at first. As represented in the film, the Sex Pistols’ Manchester debut was an anticlimactic affair, with about 40 people watching as the band – Winterbottom just splices in old footage – howls demonically in a brightly lit auditorium, while the audience watches with guarded interest and a few enthusiasts pogo self-consciously. That is what the beginning of punk was like. No one knew if this outlandish art form could be taken seriously. It was just a few visionaries who understood what punk was doing and how important it was. One of them was Tony Wilson, Manchester TV personality, who ‘gets’ the ferocious creativity of the local music scene and dreams of turning it into something bigger. Sometimes all it takes is one really good bar, and Wilson realizes that and starts one – the Hacienda, a huge industrial space in a desolate neighborhood. With his high profile and canny promotion, he’s soon attracting record crowds to the shows, which are fueled, we later learn, mostly by Ecstasy so the bar receipts are low and the place eventually closes. Wilson also starts Factory records (unabashed by the echo of Warhol) which allowed artists to have full control over their creations and financial arrangements. Joy Division, the band Wilson was originally most excited about, fulfilled his vision by becoming one of the most influential bands of the 80s and achieving near-myth status after the suicide of its lead singer (Ian Curtis).
Michael Winterbottom makes all this interesting even if you weren’t an aficionado of the Manchester music scene. Far from the austere, ultra-dignified style of the Wilco film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, (anatomized on this site by Jeff Sabatini), 24 Hour Party People grabs your attention with its jittery hand-held camera movements, its grainy spontaneity and inclusion of crazy, off-the-cuff segments like God appearing at the end to tell Tony Wilson he’d been right about everything. And it shows the best aspect of the British character. There’s a striking lack of pretension in the Manchester musicians, who continue to wear unfashionable parkas and drink in the streets even after they’ve hit it big. There isn’t a rock star haircut or pair of designer shades among them. In one scene, the Happy Mondays are so outraged by an expensive new table in the Factory records office that they can’t stop taking the piss out of it for the whole meeting (which they leave in disgust). And Tony Wilson (played by English comic Steve Coogan) is a likable mixture of foppish Cambridge lit-crit-spouter and regular head-banging rock fan, though he does seem to keep his head clearer of intoxicants than most of the people on the scene. Wilson narrates the film with an engaging mixture of bluntness, personal ruefulness and occasional self-parody.
The best rock movies groove off their subjects as much as possible, and 24 Hour Party People shows plenty of concert footage, with actors playing the musicians. But Winterbottom’s subject isn’t just music; it’s also the scene, and the times. The story takes place against a backdrop of a the troubled economy of Manchester in the Thatcherite 80s: factory closings, layoffs, unemployment and in one creepy scene, the presence of a large faction of the local Nazi party at a Joy Division show, the skinheads evidently having adopted the band as some kind of mascot. Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) passes out during that show, and you’re never quite sure if it’s uneasiness over that aspect of his success or other demons that caused him to commit suicide. No story is told in complete detail, but many are told in short intelligent chunks, like the case of legendary producer Martin Hannett, who’s portrayed as a grouchy, overweight, bear-like man no more interested in making nice for the camera than he is in anything outside of his fanatical focus in the studio. Hannett embodies that disrespect for authority figures, from record executives to television producers, that’s so much a part of the English, rather than American, approach to artistic success.
There were some British people near me in the theater and they seemed to be having the best time. They got all the in-jokes, and they were convulsed by the very appearance of Tony Wilson/Steve Coogan, so as a non-Brit you know there’s a level of the film you just don’t have access to. But it’s fun to watch this recreation of Manchester in the 80s (not many of us were there, after all) and to relive the excitement and urgency of a real ‘new order’ of music. Plus, like Spike Lee, Winterbottom is a virtuoso with the camera, so if bored by all else, you can sit back and appreciate the verve of the images making you feel like you’re on hard drugs again.