Michael Winterbottom’s 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE [8/10]

“This is not a film about me,” says Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) midway through 24 Hour Party People, a delirious chronicle of Manchester’s music scene from the mid-70s to the mid-90s. “I’m not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. I’m a minor character in my own movie. This is about the music and the people who made it.”

Yeah, right. If nothing else, this is a film all about Tony Wilson – it’s ‘the world according to Tony’, in fact, one in which almost every other character struggles to get a look-in. For the man behind Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub, it’s a world which begins and ends with the Manchester post-code. Local rivals Liverpool and Leeds might as well not even exist, and an abortive trip to London is presented as an hallucinogenic phantasmagoria. But this isn’t a film about the Manchester that most people know, or even the Manchester music that most people know: 24 Hour Party People is more interested in A Certain Ratio and Vini Reilly than The Smiths, The Fall, Oasis, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and James put together.

As Wilson guiltily admits, he paid insufficient attention to his wives and children – so they’re relegated to the distant background of the movie. Likewise Morrissey and the Gallagher brothers: centre stage is taken by Wilson’s relationships with the bands that made Factory one of Britain’s key indie labels. Meaning Joy Division, who became New Order after the suicide of their singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris), and the Happy Mondays, party-hearty avatars of the ‘Madchester’ phenomenon which briefly turned the Hacienda into a Moulin-Rouge-style epicentre of hedonism.

But Wilson never gave up his day job as anchorman of Manchester’s regional current-affairs TV show – allowing Winterbottom to establish a historical context by judicious use of newsreeel footage: Wilson points us back to Manchester’s 19th-century industrial heyday, and forward to our current global, ecstasy-fuelled DJ culture. The film has no interest, however, in establishing Wilson as a reliable narrator – like Velvet Goldmine, this is an aggressively subjective version of recent history (both films breezily feature a peripheral but seminal character arriving by UFO – there Oscar Wilde, here the Mondays’ Bez), determined to undercut, contradict and, on occasion, ridicule its subject.

Though the film is almost a biopic, Wilson is captioned as a ‘twat’ on most of its UK promotional posters, echoing the scorn his household-name celebrity and smarmy manner attracts from his cooler-than-thou music-biz colleagues. But it doesn’t matter that Wilson clearly can’t dance, and that he’s always the most unfashionably dressed person in any room – the only ‘style’ compliment he ever receives comes from Ian Curtis’s grandmother. We see that, while Wilson may be very un-cool himself, his skill lies in providing more artistically talented people with frameworks within which they can operate.

Just like Winterbottom, perhaps? In a cough-and-you’ll-miss-it aside, Wilson’s graphic designer tells him “you’ve no visual imagination,” and the director is likewise often criticised for the lack of recognisable directorial ‘stamp’ on his (numerous) movies. The largely indoors-bound Party People is, quite literally, half a world away from his last release, wintry post-Western The Claim, which was framed in stark near-monochrome by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler to recreate contemporary Klondike photography. Here Robby Müller’s rough-edged DV chimes with the styles of a very different time and place: the specific fall-out of punk, and the general grittiness that industrial Manchester has always embraced.

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script, meanwhile, successfully switches between raucous, hilarious comedy and – during the Curtis section – unexpectedly shattering tragedy. It’s tempting to see Wilson as a slightly more benign variant on the character of Dillon as played by Peter Mullan in The Claim, Boyce’s Thomas Hardy adaptation: both films focus on a blindly ambitious entrepreneur brought low by his own defects. Dillon built the bustling town of Kingdom Come from a single shack, and Wilson’s Kingdom Come resides in his Factory empire and the Hacienda (“our cathedral”). His downfall, he reckons, is down to his “heroic flaw – an excess of civic pride,” but he remains defiant: “I was right: Manchester was like Renaissance Florence.”

Winterbottom and Boyce, while exposing such statements to ridicule, simultaneously justify them, boosting Wilson’s self-regard to it to new levels. Despite the abundance of familiar faces from British TV comedy (including Coogan, eerily accurate but going sufficiently far beyond mere impersonation to erase memories of his monstrous Alan Partridge alter ego) 24 Hour Party People only makes complete sense as a work of cinema. Because, like a Renaissance prince, Wilson’s ego demands – and here receives – the vindication provided by the biggest possible public canvas.

Neil Young
23rd April, 2002
(seen 28th March, Warner Village, Newcastle; 18th April, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE : UK 2002 : Michael Winterbottom : 117-120 mins : 8/10