review: 24 hour party people

August 1, 2006

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God made man in his own image, and he looks exactly like music maven Tony Wilson. At least, that’s what Wilson saw when the Almighty appeared to dispense some sage advice. Such is the weird and wonderful world of 24 Hour Party People, director Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 biography-cum-mockumentary. With the improbably witty and disarmingly charming Steve Coogan in the lead role of Tony Wilson, the film takes us on a surreal and poignantly realistic tour of 1970’s and 80’s Manchester, UK, indiscriminately blending fact and fiction to mythologize the rise and fall of Wilson’s revolutionary punk music label–er…”experiment in human nature”–Factory Records.

After head-banging his way through a poorly attended performance by the then-unknown Sex Pistols, Wilson, enraptured by the uniqueness of the genre, sets out to release punk rock upon an unsuspecting populace. With a properly anti-establishment contract policy in hand–written in blood, no less–he leverages his outsized popularity as a television personality to quickly sign promising local talent, including the Happy Mondays, New Order, and Joy Division. What follows is a sobering drug-and-alcohol-fueled portrayal of the excesses of fame, interspersed with sketches of Wilson’s winningly absurd existential monologues about himself and his business and glued together by (blessedly short) clips of period concert footage. While the enterprise ultimately costs Wilson his first wife and his career, the character’s optimism and Coogan’s effortless charisma defy our tendency towards pity.

The pithy metaphor of the “wheel” of life comes through prominently, first shouted by a vagrant on a sidewalk and repeated later by Wilson in an amusingly self-important fashion: “Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.” It’s the closest thing this stubbornly unconventional film has to a message, and its honesty grounds the extravagantly materialistic goings-on with a healthy dose of perspective. Equally unflinching is Coogan’s portrayal of the extraordinarily flawed Mr. Wilson, who waxes philosophical about a lead singer’s lyrical superiority to W. B. Yeats–Wilson graduated with honors from Cambridge–yet thinks nothing of placing a £30,000 table in the company offices, to the outrage of his clients: contradictory, but then, who isn’t?

Mr. Winterbottom, ever an innovator, livens things up further by removing the so-called third wall: Coogan’s character displays total awareness of the presence of the camera, often addressing it directly for minutes on end and even expressing, with unwavering certainty, his belief that an embarassing exchange “won’t be on the DVD”; the film operates on a meta-level that foreshadows the self-parody that would follow in 2006’s Tristram Shandy, also a Winterbottom/Coogan collaboration. Cameos from the real Tony Wilson and former band members will also thrill those old enough to recognize them (you know who you are). Of note also is Andy Serkis, as deliriously brilliant producer Martin Hannett; his eccentricities alternately charm and disgust, but surely we can forgive a man with the audacity to record an album on the roof of a studio.

The peculiar genius of Tony Wilson–his tastes, his ego, and his relentless self-promotion–jumpstarted a cultural movement that continues even today; 24 Hour Party People is both a celebration of that fact and a meditation on its idiosyncrasies. Just don’t mistake it for a history. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but Mr. Winterbottom wisely gives fiction the benefit of the doubt here, leaving Coogan to embellish and exaggerate. Lucky us.

–D. S. W.

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