24 Hour Party People

The snorts, sounds and scum of Factory Records’ heydey

Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Starring Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Paddy Considine

Early in 24-Hour Party People, Factory Records boss Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) finds his wife having sex with The Buzzcocks’ Steve Shelley in a nightclub toilet. It’s not a shock; Wilson has already warned us, in an aside to the camera, that this is going to happen.

What comes next is a surprise: Coogan-as-Wilson introduces the real Howard Devoto, bandmate of the real Shelley in the real Buzzcocks. Devoto interrupts this purported account of the real lives of real people to note that the scene we’ve just seen did not take place. By way of response, Wilson quotes famed film director John Ford to the effect that given a choice between fact and legend, he’ll always choose legend.

This pomo playfulness is both typical of 24-Hour Party People and true to the spirit of its subject, the relentlessly self-mythologizing Manchester music scene of the 1980s. Creating legend out of fact was Manchester music-makers’ way of circumventing the wealth and power of London’s cultural dominance, and no one self-mythologized more energetically than Wilson. For all its winking warnings that much of what we are seeing is exaggerated or simply made-up, 24-Hour Party People captures the feel of the scene’s wildest years.

Interestingly, the film chooses to retell the rise and fall of Wilson’s maverick indie label as a broad comedy. It’s an unusual approach given that the Factory story involves two deaths and a heavy dose of heartbreak. That it works is mainly due to a well-judged performance by comedian Coogan, who plays Wilson as a posturing but likable buffoon. In Coogan’s hands (with help from screenwriter Frank Cottrall Boyce), Wilson’s all-too human frailties constantly undercut his pretensions. Between quoting obscure philosophers and expounding on his grand schemes, he worries about the size of his hips.

A Cambridge graduate schooled in situationist and postmodern theory, Wilson returns to Manchester in the mid-70s to work in local television but finds himself inspired by punk’s DIY ethic. (The movie’s thematic if not literal starting point is a famed pair of 1976 Sex Pistols shows in Manchester attended by Wilson, Morrissey, and future members of Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, and Simply Red.) In his spare time Wilson starts Factory as a club night to showcase local bands then graduates to releasing records.

Wilson’s unlikely double life – TV personality by day, rock impresario by night – is used to good comic effect. When he’s not building his music empire, Wilson earns his living reporting on the likes of sheep-herding geese and geriatric canal workers. Eventually, of course, the two worlds collide and things get messy – and painfully funny, as when a coked-up Wilson tries to make pre-interview small talk with a stuffy government minister.

The light tone is surprisingly effective when it comes to the film’s most saddening subplot, the tale of seminal Factory band Joy Division. Lead singer/writer Ian Curtis, whose songs of alienation and heartbreak helped define Brit postpunk, hung himself just before Joy Division’s first U.S. tour. Boyce and director Michael Winterbottom resist the temptation to turn Curtis (Sean Harris, suitably frail and intense) into a tragic rock cliche. Taking its cue from Curtis’ ambiguous suicide note (“At this very moment I just wish I were dead.”), the film offers no easy explanation why the 23-year-old killed himself, eschewing melodrama in favor of bittersweet comedy. Wilson is filming a typically lightweight news item about a town crier when he learns that his star has hung himself. Though shaken, he persuades the town crier to spread the news of Curtis’s death, and incorporates this into his report. It’s a tasteless, even exploitative gesture, but an oddly moving one.

Strangely, the reinvention of Joy Division as revolutionary electronic/dance band New Order following Curtis’s death gets short shrift in 24-Hour Party People, despite being one of the most musically significant chapters of the Factory saga. Instead, Winterbottom fast-forwards to the Ecstasy-fuelled “Madchester” scene of the late 1980s, when Factory’s Hacienda club became a dance music Mecca and guitar bands such as Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses made it into the mainstream with a distinctive mix of indie rock and dance beats. The 40-something Wilson ultimately became an unlikely spokesman for the rave generation.

As Factory’s ambitions grow, though, so do the losses, leaving the company increasingly dependent on Happy Mondays just as Happy Mondays become increasingly dependent on hard drugs. (The band spends the money that Wilson sends them on crack.) Ultimately, Factory falls apart, victimized by the same disregard for standard music-biz procedure that made the label unique: Bands were given complete creative control, half the revenues, and handshake agreements that allowed them to walk away at any time.

When the money ran out, most of them did, and Factory’s attempt to challenge the British music scene’s status quo ended in failure. Despite the unhappy ending, 24-Hour Party People is an effective reminder of the ambition and idealism of a record label that lived fast, died young, and left a great soundtrack.

Sam Beckwith can be reached at letters@pill.cz

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