24 Hour Party People
It's a truism that the word 'genius' is tossed around with a frequency that negates the concept, but ultimately the notion of higher intellect or artistry depends either on how minimal a percentage of the population you want to mark out as being significantly greater than the rest of us, or there being a mental chasm dividing the extraordinary from the merely clever or talented. Whether or not such a divide exists, on the evidence of 24 hour party people, you'd have to say that Ian Curtis and Martin Hannett were artistic enigmas rather than the geniuses it proclaims them to be; Shaun Ryder an instinctive writer of doggerel rather than a 'poet'; and Tony Wilson an inept enthusiast with a lot of the usual human failings rather than a 'twat'. The film makes only a faint-hearted attempt to get inside the head of Ian Curtis, and so - to anyone not versed in Factory folklore, and admittedly as it may very well have seemed to his friends at the time - his suicide appears to come out of nowhere. This would be less of a problem were it not the case that the background to his depression is already in the public domain, both through Mick Middles' version of the Factory story and Deborah Curtis' memoir, Touching from a distance. Fortunately the film makes no attempt at all to get inside the head of Shaun Ryder.
No-one in Manchester in the late '70s - not even Mr. Wilson - was so urbane that Michael Winterbottom could have made a film like The last days of disco about the place and the period. By the time the Hacienda was in full swing, so was ecstasy, and its effects would seriously diminish any drama you tried to stage against the club's backdrop. So the knowing, lawless, self-mocking rockumentary-docudrama is probably the best option; all the same, it's a little strange being in a cinema watching this mix of extended pop video, newsreel-esque footage of the Sex Pistols and dramatised versions of the kind of anecdotes that are the stock in trade of British tv's pop nostalgia programmes. One great scene, however, validates the myth-making, cherry-picking approach they've taken by deliberately pointing out alternate viewpoints: Howard Devoto steps out of his role as toilet cleaner to challenge Tony's version of an incident that happened in that very toilet.
Steve Coogan does a much better job of portraying Wilson than I had imagined he would, getting the vocal inflections, mannerisms and random spray of intellect just right, leaving doubts only about his hair, which from the footage I've seen of Tony's So it goes programme was a little more bouffant and a lot less lank. But he's still Steve Coogan, and Alan Partridge is only a Pringle jumper away, especially in the roving tv news reporter scenes. That's an extra level of intrusion in the 'star playing famous person' equation, in a film already intent on pointing out its own absurdity.
Michael Winterbottom is obviously an inventive film maker, but one who avoids putting a signature to his work, apparently preferring the path of attempting never to repeat himself. That's admirable, but perhaps his prolific eclecticism is preventing the development of a cinematic presence - the authorial hand that all-powerful American and European directors aim for or achieve yet is so rare in Britain. Wonderland came close, but 24 hour party people was only ever going to be a celebration of an era in music rather than a cinematic achievement, although the way he portrays the washed-out late '70s and the day-glo late '80s lifts the film high above the usual pop biopic fare.
While I found myself irritated by the opening sequences of Wonderland, then gradually and wholly won over, 24 hour party people won me over straightaway, then gradually and wholly lost me during the Happy Mondays half of the film. Probably that's because Joy Division took less damaging drugs, but perhaps it's down to my first-hand experience of the Mondays before they was Mad. I remember their performance as one of the cleanest, hardest, funkiest and freakiest I've ever witnessed, a perfect display of gang mentality, of total insulation from the outside world. My own romantic, unromantic vision of a great pop group. Here inevitably is the drug-addled mess and rock star flab in all its unappealing detail.
24 hour party people is overlong, reductive, and as messy as the Factory story itself. But for all its flaws, films about your favourite music and the characters that made it don't come along very often. I'm grateful that Michael Winterbottom thought it was worth the effort.
© Daniel Williams 2002