You can’t appreciate the depths of surrender required to appreciate 24 Hour Party People until you see Steve Coogan, playing real-life music impresario Tony Wilson, talking to the actual Wilson, who’s playing the producer of a television show that the real Wilson once hosted.
That’s about when we completely lose sight of the boundaries among fact, fiction and utter fantasy in this bewildering, enthralling, somewhat dishonest (but always up front about it) saga of the Manchester rock & roll scene from Michael Winterbottom, the eclectic director whose last film was the middling Western epic The Claim. You don’t watch this film so much as tread water in it while riding the swells and tides surrounding Wilson, who’s played brilliantly by Coogan as a long-haired, three-piece-suit-wearing shyster with one eye on his wallet and another on history.
It’s the story of 16 years in the impossibly varied life of this Cambridge-educated TV host. Wilson co-founded Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub while doing a metric ton of drugs, sleeping with way too many party girls and generally running himself into the ground while enjoying a front-row seat to the antics of some of England’s best bands of the ’70s and ’80s.
The film starts on June 4, 1976, when Wilson was among 42 people at a Sex Pistols show that blew his mind. He put the band on his weekly TV show and got into concert promotion. Wilson and his friend Alan (Lennie James) soon partnered with Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine), the manager of Joy Division—called the Stiff Kittens at the time and still several years from becoming New Order—in Factory, which went on to nurture the careers of several good bands and many more forgotten ones. Eventually, Wilson also opened the Hacienda, which became an epicenter of cool.
But the confusion and exhilaration of this scene has nothing on Winterbottom’s spastic manner of telling the tale. In 24 Hour Party People, every character might turn to the camera and speak to us at any point, either as the actor playing the character or as the character himself. It’s shot on digital video, which gives us beautiful images in the center of the Hacienda dance floor, but seems grainy and lame in outdoor scenes. It’s all part of the construction here; Winterbottom is determined to make a film with the same pure abandon as he perceives in this world he’s chronicling. For better or worse, he succeeds.
We meet all the big names of this particular time and place. There’s Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, who hung himself in 1980. There’s Martin Hannett, the brilliant, self-destructive producer who made Factory work. There’s Shaun Ryder, the lead singer of largely forgotten Happy Mondays who’s regarded by Wilson as the British Isles’ greatest poet since Yeats (he seemed particularly fond of ending both lines of his couplets with the same word, which practically guarantees a rhyme).
Their antics are mostly interesting, but the film is all about Wilson. Coogan never shuts up, often dropping out of scenes to comment on his behavior within them, then providing subtext moments later (“He went on to sleep with my wife,” Wilson says of one guy). Above all, he’s relentlessly energetic. The music simply provides a direction in which to channel this passionate drive, and there are few things more interesting on film than a man with a plan.
“I am a minor character in my own story,” Wilson opines, yet Coogan almost gets us to share Wilson’s obsession with the music and madness of the times. With the perspective of time and indifference, we realize the Manchester scene wasn’t quite the earthshaking life force he saw it to be. We’re more impressed with Wilson himself—or is it the rendition of Wilson dreamed up by Coogan and Winterbottom?—as an enthusiastic, bombastic lover of life. He’s worth the price of admission all by himself, even if the bands might leave you wanting your money back.