starring Steve Coogan, Keith Allen, Rob Brydon, Enzo Cilenti
screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce
directed by Michael Winterbottom
by Walter Chaw Inviting direct comparisons to Todd Haynes's ebullient Velvet Goldmine with a flying saucer, Michael Winterbottom's brilliant 24 Hour Party People apes, too, a great deal of the style and tone from that film: insouciant, arch, and invested in giving over the stage to the zeitgeist of an era through its youth culture and its music. 24 Hour Party People distinguishes itself, however, with a flip, post-modern absurdism that includes asides to the camera ("I'm being post-modern before it became popular") and a certain self-awareness that somehow encapsulates the discursive, free-associative madness of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Beginning with The Sex Pistols' first performance in 1976 before a rapt crowd of 42 people, the picture takes on a dizzying kind of animal logic, stalking the fortunes of the "New Wave" Manchester ethos of Joy Division (into the band they became, New Order), Happy Mondays, the Hacienda dance club, and, most importantly, Wilson himself--part huckster, part savant. All along, Wilson cues us that the world is about to change and that this band of brothers, this group of bouncing, sullen, devotees to a new punk energy, are the men who will change it.
As aggressive and combative as the music of early-Eighties' "Madchester," 24 Hour Party People stays on this side of glorifying an insufferable self-described "twat" with a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce that constantly defuses Wilson's grandiloquent posture. In a scene that recalls Annie Hall, immediately following a depiction of The Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto in congress with Wilson's wife (Shirley Henderson), the real Devoto appears, saying, "This never happened." The factual accuracy of the film is not nearly so important, in other words, as Wilson's odd, self-deprecating megalomaniacal arrogance: The picture is a portrait of a very specific point-of-view, placing it in the company of The Kid Stays in the Picture and Winterbottom's own Welcome to Sarajevo. The smart use of digital video only fuels the feeling of an intimate perspective: the medium's ability to get "inside" an exchange exploited along with the ability to visually match new footage with archival performance reels.
Sean Harris offers a lovely turn as doomed Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, who incorporated his epilepsy into a Cocker-esque performing style. Danny Cunningham is a spot-on Shaun Ryder, lead singer of prototypical jam band Happy Mondays, and Andy Serkis is boozily enigmatic as genius music producer Martin Hannett. But 24 Hour Party People isn't about the individuals so much as it's about the movement itself, that amalgamation of punk garage and industrial techno that fused to become the rave culture, where "even the white man dances." Sadly, the last half-hour of the film squanders a good bit of the picture's considerable momentum with an almost constant barrage of rave grooves overwhelming the bits of errata surrounding the collapse of Factory Records and the bankruptcy of money pit Hacienda, though a final shot of Wilson speaking Python-like to a flat-animated God finds the backbeat with a sly wink before the lights come up.
24 Hour Party People is as irreverent and disrespectful as Johnny Rotten, a chronicle of unfettered ambition and staggering failure that has the curious effect of engendering a good deal of affection for these mad hatters jumping out of metaphorical airplanes without parachutes. (After Wilson crashes in a hang glider while filming a segment at his "day job" as a put-upon journalist (each of Wilson's triumphs is tempered by a humiliating gig like interviewing a dwarf elephant handler), he remarks, "Of course this [crash] can be taken on two levels.") As such, the picture's occasional missteps serve the rough ethic of the story and its rogue's gallery of dreamers and wankers. Not flawless by any stretch, 24 Hour Party People has an ear to the spirit of a time pitch-perfect and infectious. Originally published: August 23, 2002.