We have another new writer joining our bullpen of re-viewers, one Betsy Cass, Anglophile extraordinaire. For her first re-view, may we present Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.
“This is not a film about me. I am not prince Hamlet. I am a minor character in my own story. This is a film about the music and the people who made the music.”
The first time I saw 24 Hour Party People, I might have believed this. It’s certainly what film studios and ad agencies wanted viewers to believe. It’s probably what early fans got from the movie, but I don’t think it’s true about the film director Michael Winterbottom or screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce wanted to make. For all its loud, colorful celebration of the Manchester music scene, I secretly think the movie isn’t about the music at all. I also think it’s better for it.
Presumably, the movie is about Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. A Cambridge-educated journalist, he worked for Granada TV in Manchester doing painfully pointless packages, as well as a local music show that featured leaders in punk and post-punk. After attending The Sex Pistols’ first show in Manchester (supposedly only 42 people were there, including members of The Buzzcocks and Joy Division, as well as Mick Hucknall and producer Martin Hannett), Wilson decided to start his own label, Factory Records, which was home to Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays. He eventually opened the renowned Hacienda nightclub, helping usher in the Madchester scene and, what Wilson refers to as “the beatification of the beat,” rave culture. But I’ve already told you, this movie isn’t really about that.
At least half of what Tony Wilson, iconically played here by Steve Coogan, says is true though: it’s a movie about the people that made the music. It took me a long time to realize this. It also explains the slight disappointment I, and many other first-time viewers, felt after originally watching. To be clear, the film is a psychedelic, surreal, comic journey that features some of the greatest music ever recorded as the soundtrack to its story. But at times the songs seems shoehorned and liminal. It occurs to me now that they are perhaps a necessary distraction to telling the more important story. That story of Factory Records, the Hacienda and Tony Wilson is so much more than the romp that was originally marketed to viewers and hailed by hip critics in 2002.
Ten years ago, this was a film that I knew escaped me. As a painfully Anglophilic, socially isolated adolescent, it seemed as though it had been made for me. But when the credits rolled after 117 minutes, I was left feeling empty. I’d enjoyed myself for two hours, certainly, but I didn’t feel the spiritual uplift that I’ve been led to expect. I was disappointed with the portrayal of Ian Curtis (Sean Harris is a fine actor, but he does a terrible job capturing Curtis’s energy), baffled by the lengthy focus on The Happy Mondays (I don’t dislike them entirely, but view them as the least of the bands of the era) and ultimately left unsatisfied by the episodic and messy story. At the same, time I knew that when I came back to the film, I’d be able to appreciate it more.
Over half a dozen viewings in the last decade, that hunch has held true. Maybe it’s due to advanced knowledge (or advanced age), but suddenly, so many more of the choices make sense (aside from having a ginger play Ian Curtis). Some are more subtle than others, but my respect for what the filmmakers did has grown immensely. Winterbottom and Boyce let the music make cameos, but rarely feature it front and center. They layer truths and lies which can be disorienting to first-time viewers, but stand as charmingly accurate moments to repeat watchers. They fill the film with hilariously obvious non sequitur metaphors. One of the boldest, and most telling choices is the fact that neither Bernard Sumner nor Peter Hook are ever mentioned by name, despite the fact that Sumner plays a major role in the film. I believe one reason for this is that dropping names that have become so culturally iconic would take away from who these people actually are and the journey they went on with Wilson as young men. This film is about the people, not the music. The names conjure the music and its legacy, while John Simm’s perfectly exasperated portrayal of Sumner gets somewhere closer to the reality.
Indeed nearly everyone expressly named in the film was dead by the time it was made. Aside from Wilson and Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder, the only characters repeatedly referred to by name are Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton (played brilliantly by Paddy Considine), Ian Curtis and record producer Martin Hannett (a “pre-fame” Andy Serkis). The filmmakers are telling you these names matter. The film seeks to turn Gretton and Hannett into icons that are just as important as Curtis.
The question that follows is, why do these names matter? And why, perhaps, don’t Hook and Sumner? It has nothing to do with fame or quality of output. Again, this film is not about the music. The reason these names matter is because they belong to people that bought into the ideal of freedom. Tony Wilson never had a contract with his bands. Instead he has an agreement that said if they didn’t like the situation, they could fuck off. He gave himself the same right. The artists with Factory Records had complete creative freedom and owned all their own music. Wilson wasn’t in it for the money. He wasn’t even necessarily in it to make good music. Instead, he wanted to facilitate music making. Hannett and Gretton had the same aspirations; they had the same dedication. Even if they didn’t always see eye to eye, there was a mutual respect based on their commitment to the art. Brilliant though Hook and Sumner may be, they’re not renowned for their total acceptance of Wilson’s model. It doesn’t matter that his experiment ultimately failed. He did the right thing, dammit, with no real expectation for himself.
It’s in this message that the film finds its grounding and that repeat viewers can find a quality and depth often obscured by hype. It’s not a hedonistic tale about drugs and music, no matter how badly amateur and professional fans want it to be. Nor is it a warning tale about throwing caution into the wind. Instead, it’s a story about doing the right thing for the right reason. The story of Tony Wilson and the people that took the ride with him is an aspirational one. I’m not saying Wilson did it for ALL the right reasons (he was egotistical and arguably fame-hungry, plus he funded the crumbling Hacienda nightclub with New Order profits), but he was as close as we’re going to get. He was the polar opposite of greedy, manipulative Gareth Evans, the manager of the other Manc all-stars of the era, The Stone Roses (who still, ironically, hold anti-Factory sentiments). Wilson knew he was going to fail, but he didn’t care. We should all be so willing.
It all goes back to the first scene, ironic on more levels than I can count. Wilson is filming a package for Granada TV about paragliding, in which he crashes spectacularly over and over again. In an aside to camera, he mentions that the scene works on more than one level, that it will be important to the rest of the film. “I’ll just say Icarus,” he tells the audience. In that moment, Wilson is simultaneously a brilliantly unreliable narrator and a painfully savvy one. Even his ego won’t prevent him from chasing a doomed dream.
Unfortunately, the film can never find a balance between expressing this idea and the desire to entertain. The first time I watched it, the subtler points felt so overwhelmed by the cacophony of acid trip visuals, crazy characters and weirdly highbrow humor that they felt less like intended moments and more like empty filler. Now that I’m more in tune with the film as a whole, the base line provided by these scenes seems like the moments that matter, always in danger of drowning. There are plenty of uncomfortable tonal shifts, especially in addressing Ian Curtis in the first half of the film. Ham-handed attempts to make him seem brooding only turn him into an asshole and his death is met with mild mockery. What should be a tender memory (and is as a standalone) of him happily singing “Louie Louie” instead comes off as incongruous and awkward. But despite these problems I’ve grown to embrace some of the impudence that was problematic for me ten years ago. It used to think it made the whole affair seem flippant and maybe a bit pointless, but not always fun in the way that had been laid out by so many viewers. Now it reads closer to honesty.
Like so much of the music it features, 24 Hour Party People can only benefit from outliving its legacy. At present, it’s considered one of the premiere British comedies of the last two decades and iconic of Winterbottom’s style. That’s despite the fact that Winterbottom’s career, often in collaboration with screenwriter Boyce, is filled with ultra-serious, boundary pushing works of misery, many of which don’t go over well with viewers. Yet beginning with this first foray, it’s absurd comedy that defines him publicly. I won’t bother trying to explain that odd phenomenon, but I will say, over time, it’s become clear how this film has much more in common with the rest of his oeuvre than initially meets the eye. Far from being the farcical romp it is still considered, Winterbottom has produced a layered, clever and meaningful work that succeeds because of the way it fulfills the most basic needs of any story: it makes the characters and their journey matter. Those looking for a rollicking music movie, a comic gem or an exposé of an era will be ultimately disappointed by the film’s inability to commit to a genre. But those that can look past the colorful lashings and funky drummer grooves will find something surprisingly simple and more fulfilling. While I still can’t endorse the film as a chronicle of a movement, I can champion it as an advocate of an idea with scattered moments of comic genius.
Notes, Quotes and Observations:
It’s impossible to talk about this film without bringing up Control, the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic directed by Anton Corbijn. While I’ll try not to make many labored comparisons, I will say I’ve somewhat surprisingly begun to confuse scenes from the two movies. Tony Wilson famously wrote Joy Division’s contract in his own blood. The more drawn out, comedic version of the scene appears in Control, to my mild shock, as does a brilliant cameo in which John Cooper Clarke recites “Evidently Chicken Town.”
While I deeply prefer Sam Riley’s portrayal of Curtis in Control, it’s sort of a toss-up for Rob Gretton. I love what Paddy Considine does in 24 Hour Party People, but Toby Kebbel is great in the role as well. Interestingly, the two actors played brothers in the (highly overrated) British thriller Dead Man’s Shoes.
Finally, Sam Riley originally played Mark E. Smith (lead singer of The Fall, who also cameos in the film) in 24 Hour Party People, but was cut from the final edit. Careful viewers will note the Mark E. Smith joke in Control is in reference to this.
I sort of mentioned it before, but seriously, I love John Simm in this movie. Most people probably wouldn’t even notice him, but his subtle, natural exasperation is so fantastic.
Also, the guy who plays Bez is perfect. I don’t know who he is, but I just imagine he’s the real Bez.
Rowetta, the sassy backup singer for The Happy Mondays, does play herself.
It’s hard to believe it was a full ten years between when Ian Curtis hanged himself and the Second Summer of Love. Even harder to believe? It was only five years between the Hacienda closing and the release of this film.
Tony Wilson’s response to being called a fascist because of featuring Joy Division on his label: Have you never heard of the free play of signs and signifiers? Yes, we have a band called Joy Division. We also have a band called The Durutti Column. Don’t tell me about the irony there.
More wisdom from Tony Wilson: Jazz is the last refuge of the untalented. Jazz musicians enjoy themselves much more than anyone listening to them.
God as Tony Wilson to Tony Wilson: You should have signed The Smiths. You were right about Mick Hucknall, though. His music’s rubbish and he’s a ginger.
Worst band name, or best band name? Tony Wilson says the worst band name he’s ever heard is Barabbas. Before a show, the promoter would shout, “Who do you want?,” and the audience would shout back “Barabbas!” I’m the only one that ever laughs at this joke.
Not so subtle metaphors: The packages Wilson films for Granada include a disastrous paragliding jaunt, watching a duck herd sheep and a midget washing an elephant.
There were many special thanks following the film, mostly to musicians whose stories were told and their families. Also included were Christopher Eccleston and Johnny Vegas. I want to know why!