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|24 Hour Party People
by MP Bartley
Every great era in music gets its representation in film whether it be dramatisation, documentary or a mixture of both. The Beatles kickstarted it all obviously, then The Band (The Last Waltz), Pink Floyd, U2 etc all got in on the act. Add to that works of drama such as 'Sid and Nancy' and 'Backbeat' you have nearly every major period or genre covered. And you can now add '24 Hour Party People' to the list.'24 Hour Party People' covers the musical period of Britain from the 80's through to the end of the 90's. It's post-punk and pre-dance that eventually ends with the rise of rave. It's set in Thatcherite Britain (Manchester to be precise) a time of economic and social desolation, when the lower classes were left to twist in the wind as the Conservative government made sure the rich got richer and the poor got considerably poorer.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart"
But this isn't about politics, it's about the music that started to pump the life back into the lives of many and gave hope to those who saw the death of punk as the death of music.
It centres around Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) local tv presenter who starts up his own record label, Factory Records. Immediately we see Tony wants to do things differently. He writes the contracts in blood guaranteeing total artistic freedom to the bands he signs, and profit is the last thing on his agenda. It then charts the soaring fame of Factory leading to the creation of seminal nightclub The Hacienda before its eventual collapse. Along the way it takes in the story of two of the most promiment bands of the era; Joy Divison who would become New Order, and The Happy Mondays.
What's unusual about '...Party People' is that it's a biopic about nobody. It's a biopic about a time and a place. It's certainly not a biopic about Tony Wilson, or if it is it's the most unflattering biopic I've ever seen. Wilson is seen as a blundering fool, who made money more by chance than skill, and eventually caused the collapse of his own company by wilfully and wildly overspending on furniture for his office and astronomical recording budgets for bands who simply spent the money on a drug crazed holiday. Even the poster pokes fun at Wilson. Showcasing the three main characters of the time it has a label of their character underneath each person. Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is labelled 'poet', Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) is labelled 'genius', and Wilson? Labelled 'twat'. But for anyone seeking gossip or lawsuits against the filmmakers, here's another unusual thing. Wilson was involved from beginning to end and even makes a cameo appearance.
In fact '...Party People' never plays like you expect it to. Director Michael Winterbottom shoots on dv giving it a raw docu/drama feel that fits the era perfectly and gives it an unwieldly, almost punk feel to the film. If it sometimes feels like it's being made by people not sure what the hell they were doing (it's partly improvised), then it matches the creation of the music featured perfectly. This is a film about misfits who somehow made art by misfits making art.
Winterbottom also plays fast and loose with the narrative. The film plays along like you would expect, only to be broken up by Coogan's commentary on the action to the camera.
Case in point: Wilson enters a gents toilet in a club to find his wife having sex in a cubicle with another man. Wilson notes to camera that the man is Howard Devo, later to front the Buzzcocks. As he leaves the toilets he passes an old cleaner. Wilson now tells us that this cleaner is the real Howard Devo making a cameo appearance. Devo now addresses the camera saying he doesn't remember the incident with Wilson's wife at all.
Boring? Never. If you can get past the way narrative and truth is played with you'll enjoy the film a hell of a lot more. And yes, truth is also circumspect at points here. If you want the hardcore factual lowdown on those drug-filled days there are plenty of books to whet your appetite. But as the people who the film revolves around say themselves, '...Party People' isn't about the truth, it's about the myth.
Plotwise...there isn't really a plot.
<<<SPOILERS-if you don't know the history of the bands>>>
It's more a series of sketches and characters colliding. The first half is the darker, more serious half focusing on Joy Divison fronted by the troubled epileptic Curtis with backing by guitarist Bernard Sumner (John Simm - an uncanny likeness) and bassist Peter Hook (Ralf Little). Joy Divison were responsible for some of the most evocative, haunting and downright powerful music of the era, and for all the trickery going on in with the narrative the film pays full respect to them. It never feels manipulative in its treatment of the tragic Curtis, and has a gut wrenching shock when it comes to his suicide. As Curtis, Harris is superb giving a realistic and heart-rending performance that shows Hollywood actors how to really portray someone with mental problems (are you watching Russell Crowe?).
There's no showboating, just a painfully honest performance of a troubled man sliding to his fate with everyone around him horribly unaware of his torment. He's matched by a terrific moment from Coogan when he hears of his death while filming. It's a moment that never goes for the easy and big tearful moment, but for a genuine, angry reaction of finding out someone has took their talented life so young.
The second half focuses on The Happy Mondays and the meeting of minds between frontman Ryder and dancer Bez (Chris Coghill). The drug intake of the Mondays is legendary and the film shows us that in between the speed, coke and dope, the Mondays managed to create some of the most gleefully hedonostic music since The Rolling Stones. After the sombre mood of the first half, the second goes for the laughs and gets them (the poisoned pigeons, the recording sessions in Ibiza). If the first half was in muted greys, then once the Mondays enter the picture, it's in dazzling LSD technnicolour from now on as Factory and Hacienda enter freefall.
Even as the anarchy subsides into meltdown there's still a sense of emotion and affection to the people who caused the meltdown. They may have been enormously irresponsible but hell, they had a fun time doing it and they let everyone else in on it too. The affection comes from the excellent performances with everyone nailing their respective parts. Again Curtis is excellent, but Cunningham should also be mentioned while Coogan is truimphant in the part. Wilson is probably like the poster says a twat, but Coogan never lets him be unlikeable or too arrogant, and lets us get under the skin of a man who just wanted to do something different, even if he didn't know how the hell to do it.
Winetrbottom also never preaches or makes judgements about the people involved and just lets them tell their own story and lets the audience make up their own mind. It's a brave decision to let what could have been an unfocused and rambling story, unfold itself without a tight grip on it, but it works perfectly here.Ultimately if you know nothing about the period of music featured, the shambling improvisation will leave you cold. Or if you know the period but hate it, well I'm sure 'Spider-Man' is still playing somewhere near you. But if you like the period or just want a refreshing, chaotic stumble through an emerging era of music unaware of it's own importance, then join the party. And the soundtrack rocks too.
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originally posted: 08/08/02 08:07:30
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.