Movie Review: '24 Hour Party People'
I found a copy at Goodwill and rediscovered a lost classic.
As I rebuild my DVD collection, I am finding some unique and terrific movies on the back shelves of Goodwill stores and library surplus sales. Here's a review of my latest find, 2002's Michael Winterbottom flick, 24 Hour Party People.
What was the most important era in modern music? Many Americans would argue that it was the early 90s grunge explosion, and they would be wrong. They are wrong because there would not have been a grunge movement were it not for a concert that took place in a Manchester music hall filled with 40 people and one visionary. 24 Hour Party People makes the strong case that the 1976 to 1986 Manchester music scene incubated the most important era in modern music and, after seeing the film, it is difficult to argue with that.
The film centers on the visionary poseur Tony Wilson. Not necessarily a producer, not necessarily a manager, Tony Wilson was, for the most part, a witness to an amazing era in rock history. Wilson, as played by British comedian Steve Coogan, is an acerbic, quick-witted fop, a TV host who seizes an opportunity to take part in a happening. After seeing the very first Sex Pistols concert in 1976, Wilson becomes the first TV personality to give punk a televised forum. At the Sex Pistols concert, Wilson steps out of character to introduce the people in the crowd who would go on to play integral parts in this amazing music scene.
In the crowd that night were the members of Joy Division, the guys who form the Buzzcocks, the Clash, and the Happy Mondays. Wilson was on the fringe of the punk movement; his real function was providing a forum for the new wave movement. With the help of a pair of friends, Joy Division manager Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine) and Alan Erasmus (Lenny James), Wilson formed Factory records; however, Factory isn’t your typical record company.
With an agreement signed in Wilson’s blood, the operators of Factory agree they will not interfere with the artistic freedom of the bands. All the while, Wilson continues his other career as a television reporter. The film is dotted with highlights of Wilson’s TV career, including his reports about a shepherding duck and a midget elephant trainer. Wilson is the film's lead, but not its focus. As he points out during his narration, it is about the music. However, if Wilson the character happens to be the most entertaining part of the film, well, so be it.
One of the most striking elements of this film is the line one can draw between the story of British new wave and American grunge. It begins in a garage in an industrial town with an ingenious band (Joy Division in new wave, Nirvana in grunge), things become huge quickly, and a scene takes shape. Then tragedy strikes. Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis takes his own life, as Nirvana’s Cobain would do years later. Joy Division offspring, the Happy Mondays, carry on the scene in a Pearl Jam-like role, meanwhile New Order rises from the ashes of Joy Division in the same way the Foo Fighters would from Nirvana.
Steve Coogan is truly hysterical as Wilson. His every line is delivered in a rye, laidback style that makes everything he says difficult to take seriously. His vocal affectations give the impression that nothing he says is serious, that everything is one big ironic joke. This feeling is really brought about by the film's mockumentary style, in which Wilson occasionally breaks character to talk directly to the audience. Wilson introduces new eras of his business, much like one of his cheeky TV news stories.
Director Michael Winterbottom delivered a unique and wonderful look at an era in music long forgotten. Using Tony Wilson to frame this story of anarchic art celebrates Wilson’s rare spirit and the music that inspired it. This is a truly exceptional film. Part historical document and part biopic, 24 Hour Party People was one of the best movies of 2002, one of the great forgotten movies of this young century.