To misappropriate a few of TV-journalist-turned-music-biz-impresario Tony Wilson’s choice opening comments: I’ll just say “Ian Curtis.” If you know what I mean, great; if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, but you should probably read more. That is, you need not be a fan of the late Ian Curtis, the epileptic new-wave seer who hanged himself in 1980, and his band Joy Division to enjoy 24-Hour Party People, director Michael Winterbottom’s dizzying docudramedy about what the Sex Pistols spawned after playing Manchester, England, on June 4, 1976. You oughta be, though.
Without prior knowledge — if, say, you graduated high school without dancing to “Blue Monday” while high on Ecstasy, and poor you — the film is a whirlwind blur, a kinetic thrill ride through the industrial backwater that was one of punk and post-punk’s most fertile Promised Lands: Manchester, home to the likes of the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Joy Division and its post-Curtis incarnation New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, Simply Red, and later, the likes of Charlatans UK and Oasis. Like a rock critic entertaining the uninitiated at a party, the movie drops the needle on the scene and offers by way of “history” a few sound bites — a pinch of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a speck of “Ever Fallen in Love” — and blanks filled in with caricatures rather than characters. The virgin for whom the Factory Records story wasn’t required reading during study hall may not know all the players, but that doesn’t diminish the movie’s blast.
Still, 24-Hour Party People is much more pleasurable if you know who’s who and what’s what, because Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce have too much fun fudging the facts; they’re more concerned with the how and where, not really the why (as in, why did Curtis string himself up?). The truth is in there somewhere, but as Wilson (Britcom star Steve Coogan) says, quoting director John Ford, it’s far more fun to print the legend. Winterbottom and Boyce serve up a tall tale commingled with random, recognizable “truths,” a lovingly barbed history about a glorious period of time unfolding in a miserable place of desolation and decay.
Though Wilson insists he’s but a bit player in this story, 24-Hour Party People is his tale from giddy start to dispiriting finish — the story of how a slightly gawky, thoroughly arrogant, but always affable TV talking head ended up booking bands, starting a label, and running a club (right into the ground) with the members of New Order. Wilson literally puts himself everywhere, even into places he wasn’t (say, the living room of brothers Shaun and Paul Ryder, still years away from recording their first single as the Happy Mondays) or incidents that never took place (a bathroom tryst involving Wilson’s wife Lindsay, portrayed by a droll-of-the-eyes Shirley Henderson, and Buzzcocks cofounder Howard Devoto, played by Martin Hancock). In fact, it’s scenes like the latter one that remind you of what a high-spirited goof this is: As Wilson’s walking out of the bathroom, the janitor stops the action to inform the audience this isn’t what really happened — and he ought to know, since the janitor’s being played by the real Howard Devoto. (A number of real-life figures appear throughout the film, including Wilson himself as the fictional Tony Wilson’s director; it’s mighty meta.)
This is the rare rock ‘n’ roll film to be more concerned with the music than its makers; it’s a lovingly assembled mix tape, the soundtrack to a short-lived revolution. But as a consequence, its protagonists, save for Wilson, get short shrift: Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) inhabits the film like a herky-jerky ghost, a shadowy spasm; we know not what drives him, what tortures him, what ruins him. Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is painted as a junkie git; Wilson demands he’s a genius –he likes to compare his wunderkinds to W.B. Yeats — but for all we know, he’s an ill-mannered, off-key wanker, which never quite explains how, for a brief moment, that band at least seemed good and, yeah, important. And producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), who used to utter such inscrutable instructions such as “faster, but slower,” is rendered little more than a fat, drunken buffoon — despite the fact he, as much as anyone else in the film, defined the sparse, sad, and spooky sound of Manchester from the late ’70s till his heart crapped out on him in 1991.
But only a rock critic could act as a nitpicky buzz kill; it’s not necessary to memorize the map to enjoy the journey. In the end, it’s not so much the sound of so-called “Madchester” captured on film as it is the spirit — how a place so gloomy could wind up the center of rave culture, how the dreary finally got up and danced. Though it lifts its title from a Happy Mondays song, the movie just as easily recalls a line from Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition”: “Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be.” The 24-Hour Party People may be a thing of the past, but they still shape the future.