Monday 2 February 2009

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Star: Steve Coogan

Tony Wilson was always going to be an interesting character to form a biopic around, being possibly the most important man in the musical industry to ever hit Manchester, one of the most vibrant and innovative spots in English musical history. Through his show on Granada TV he was the only man to play punk on the airwaves anywhere in the country, he created Factory Records to give voice to the Manchester scene enabling people like Joy Division to be heard, he founded the Hacienda nightclub which became the global centre of rave culture.

Michael Winterbottom's attempt at the Tony Wilson story follows some intriguing rules of its own, completely unafraid to break the fourth wall, and it isn't afraid to show Wilson in a variety of lights, far from all good ones. It even debunks rumours by showing them, in all their cinematic glory and then telling us that they never happened. It's a strange mix of drama, documentary, stock footage and intriguing combinations of the three, and it doesn't play at all like you'd expect a biopic to play. The casting of comedian Steve Coogan in the lead role certainly fits that concept, and the reconstruction of the rats with wings scene is truly surreal.

After a brief opening in the Pennines, we hit the real beginning: 4th May, 1976. The Sex Pistols play a tiny venue in Manchester with a sum total of 42 people in the audience. Someone at Granada the next day asks him, 'How could it be history? There were only 42 people there.' But Wilson knows how important it was, something easy for us to see when he looks at the camera and explains who everyone there is. The Buzzcocks are there. There's the Stiff Kittens, later to become Warsaw, Joy Division and New Order, meeting Ian Curtis for the first time. Mick Hucknall is there, much later of Simply Red. The name you won't recognise is Martin Hannett, who would later try to kill him and who would become the recording engineer on Factory Records. Everyone there was somebody.

I didn't know all of this story and, to be brutally frank, I'm still not sure I do. Obviously Wilson was a clever and educated man who tapped into a number of scenes and made a serious difference. He was a talented man and there's no doubt about it. However this is a story as much of ineptitude and waiting as it is of genius. Copious amounts of drugs are only part of it, and the depths to which Manchester had sunk don't tell the whole story either. The most obvious component here is sheer luck which oozes out every pore of this story. So how much was Tony Wilson the visionary instigator of much of this timely madness and how much was he just a constantly reoccurring name while it happened. This fascinating and wild film completely fails to answer that question but is incessive about posing it.

Coogan is excellent, in fact this is by far the best I've ever seen him, well above Alan Partridge, Hamlet 2 and even more than The Parole Officer. He's probably the premiere actor in the world when it comes to looking like an idiot but remaining somehow likeable and sympathetic. This performance is as stunning as it's unconventional. There are other excellent performances here: Danny Cunningham as Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays and Sean Harris as Ian Curtis of Joy Division spring quickly to mind. Another stunning yet unconventional performance comes from Andy Serkis who plays Martin Hannett. An incisive review mentioned by Wilson in the DVD commentary cites this as Serkis's strangest role, a somewhat bizarre statement given that he's best known for playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Even so, Wilson agrees with the review.

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