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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

History will tear us apart

The man, the madness and Machester

24 Hour Party People

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

"History's bunk!" proclaimed the Gang of Four, one of the smartest, sharpest bands to emerge from Britain's postpunk music scene as the '70s faded into the '80s. And what's more, they sang -- in what was perhaps the first dialectical pop song -- "It's not made by great men." With one line they had discarded the entire romantic view of history, that it's men -- not movements -- that drive change.

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Sean Harris as Joy Division singer Ian Curtis
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Danny Cunningham as Shaun Ryder, Chris Coghill as Bez and Paul Popplewell as Paul Ryder of the Happy Mondays
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Steve Coogan as Mancunian Svengali Tony Wilson

It's appropriate then, that the first (and possibly last) cinematic account of U.K. postpunk agrees with both these propositions. "24 Hour Party People," director Michael Winterbottom's scattershot account of the rise and fall of Factory Records -- and the Manchester scene that spawned Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays -- makes a point of undercutting the myths even as it writes them. Furthermore, by focusing on the character of Factory impresario Tony Wilson, a second-tier TV presenter turned bohemian label and nightclub owner, we're given a narrator who's many things -- visionary, impulsive, idealistic, insecure, intelligent, flaky, devious -- but never "great" in the historical bio-pic sense of the word.

In short, he's what the Brits like to call "dodgy" -- how else can you describe a foppish Cambridge University graduate who fancies himself as a punk? Wilson, as painted by Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, was the kind of guy for whom "egalitarian" meant signing no contracts with his label's artists and spending their money as if it were his own.

But Wilson (played with great, acerbic humor by comedian Steve Coogan) makes for an interesting prism through which to view the era. He was there from the beginning, a cultural agent provocateur at the center of things as the abrasive postpunk of '81 gave way to the warm and moody synth-pop of '83, and the proto-rave hedonism of '87, moments the film re-creates in loving detail, the music coming alive in the recording studios and clubs. Wilson's POV allows us an overview of a music scene developing over time, and this represents a bold change from your standard rock-star mythification ("The Doors," et al.)

"24 Hour Party People" traces the emergence of the Manchester scene to a life-changing Sex Pistols gig in the summer of '76. It's an interesting reality check: Despite the subsequent elevation of the Pistols and primordial punk rock to mythological status, the film reminds us that 1) the Pistols played in a dingy little trade hall with seats; 2) they weren't all that good; and 3) only 42 people came to see them, and there wasn't a safety pin to be seen ("mutant hippie" is more like it.) On the other hand, the pure, Year Zero energy was explosive, and most of the people who were there went on to form bands (The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division and, um, Simply Red).

Wilson, then a TV host for the Grenada network and frustrated with the inane nature of his work, came away ecstatic, telling his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shirley Henderson), "I'd call it history." (There's that word again.) When the sparse attendance is mentioned, Wilson rhetorically asks, "But how many people were at the Last Supper?"

Wilson's hyperbole was as great as the accuracy of his instincts and that's a killer combo for a promoter. Soon Wilson is starting a nightclub with his friend/business partner Alan Erasmus (Lennie James); in a moment of stoned inspiration they decide to call it Factory since, in an age of industrial downsizing, it would be nice to have a sign reading "Factory Opening" instead of "Factory Closing." One of their first gigs featured Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division. For anyone doubting the significance of the Manchester scene, you can locate the roots of chill-out, electronica and goth music in those three bands.

This sheer musical diversity and freedom from defined sounds cried out for a label, and Wilson soon responded, creating the Factory "collective," a utopian and anarchic approach that reflected the mood of the times. It's no exaggeration to say that indie labels, as we know them today, would not exist were it not for the pioneering, smash-the-system efforts of Factory, Rough Trade and others who embraced punk's DIY ethic. Unlike many slapdash efforts, Factory's pristine recordings and unnervingly coherent design strategies proved that an indie could shame the majors when it came to quality.

The label eventually collapsed under a pile of debt and hubris in 1992, but not without leaving a legacy of distinct, uncompromising art as well as not a few Top 40 hits. Yet the idealism survived, through some rough patches, to the end: The only record deal Joy Division/New Order ever had was a contract, written in blood by Wilson, saying that they had no contract.

Or, at least, that's what the film would have us believe: New Order's success in the mid-to-late-'80s is a thread that's left hanging as the film zooms in on the rise of the Happy Mondays, and the drug-fueled havoc they would wreak on Factory and the label's finances. But were New Order really contented partners, or was their success being milked to finance Wilson's pipe-dreams of lavishly designed offices and the massive Hacienda club?

Who knows? We do know we can't trust Wilson as a narrator. One example is how he explains away his own infidelities by claiming Lindsay was shagging Buzzcocks' member Howard DeVoto; DeVoto himself, however, pops up in a hilarious cameo, saying, "I definitely don't remember that happening." Similarly, later in the film, Wilson's wife and kids suddenly pop up out of nowhere. He'd "forgotten" to tell us about them, while trumpeting the hotter younger woman in his life. And if that isn't enough, in a total embrace of ironic detachment, the film lets Wilson address the camera directly: While describing how the infamous Hacienda club fell under the sway of drug dealers and E-popping clubbers who wouldn't buy any drinks, he even tells us about stuff we don't get to see: "This scene didn't make the final cut, but I'm sure it will be on the DVD."

Winterbottom is having a bit of fun here, reflecting the creative chaos that surrounded the whole Factory project in the film's own approach. He plays certain scenes straight enough, dissecting the process through which studio genius/producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) created Joy Division's eerily icy sound, or showing how totally mental Monday's singer Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) held the band's master tape hostage for drug money. But he also indulges in moments of pure fantasy, like when Wilson smokes a spliff and talks to God (who, in a little dig at his ego, looks just like him), or when the Mondays' drug-dazed dancer Bez is launched on his career via an alien visitation. He's also perfectly willing to put his own spin on things, griping that The Smiths never released anything on Factory, or needling Durutti Column guitarist Vini Reilly for his hopelessly weedy singing voice.

Remarkable, isn't it? A history that admits that little is certain, that the past is vague and ever shifting in emphasis, full of evasions and delusions as well the occasional revelation. Take the film's portrayal of Ian Curtis (Sean Harris), the intense singer of Joy Division; it's the details that provide an insight into this troubled man's very cloudy psyche. Even as he dourly dismisses the genius recording of what would be the band's breakthrough single, "She's Lost Control" ("I sound like f**king David Bowie," gripes the implacable singer) we're shown, offhand, the Bowie and Morrison posters that grace the walls of his flat. As to the singer's suicide -- which cemented his band's dirges with immortal impact -- we're given no reason why. But that gap between words and behavior, of idolizing artistic stardom and loathing it personally, may be all we need to know.

This discursive take on musical history may be off-putting to some, who want their Rock Legends written up Kurt Cobain-large. And someday we may even get the Shaun Ryder story. But in the meantime Winterbottom has given us an amusingly postmodern lesson in how music scenes -- and films, for that matter -- are the result of a confluence of energies, no matter how much any one person may seek to dominate the stage.

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