On the evidence of 24 Hour Party People, Tony Wilson was such an awful businessman it's hard to believe he got anything released, let alone turned Factory Records into one of the legendary forces of the British music scene. "We lose five pence on every copy we sell," someone advises him of New Order's "Blue Monday". "Ah, who cares," replies Wilson, while he peruses some unrelated paperwork. "We'll hardly sell any anyway." And then it becomes the best-selling single of all time.
Wilson was a reporter for ITV and the presenter of "So It Goes," the show that allowed him to tap into the post-punk music scene and inspired him to start Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub, which gave us bands like Joy Division, Buzzcocks, New Order and Happy Mondays. Enormously popular, sure, but nobody made any money. There's a point in this movie where Wilson's assistants are shifting cash between different offices to create the illusion of staying afloat, and Wilson's response to the situation is to spend £3,000 on an avant-garde desk and allow Shaun Ryder to go record an album in Barbados. A producer gets fifty quid an hour to trash drum kits and spill whisky on his mixing desk. It all feels like some kind of grotty, hopelessly small-time juggling trick, which is exactly what it was.
Michael Winterbottom's film, which begins in 1976 and hurtles its way through to the mid-1990s, is not a traditional tale of rise and fall. Like a movement itself, the movie throws out traditions while dancing around with them and winking at them. 24 Hour Party People feeds off the energy of the Manchester scene, celebrating its music and imagery while poking bits of fun at it lest we take things too seriously. An early scene at a Sex Pistols gig sees Wilson turn to the camera and inform us, "Every one of these people will be inspired to go out and create like no one in history before!". . . at which point Winterbottom cuts to a wide shot showing a paltry crowd of drab, smoke-dried faces. The Wilson character narrates the picture with constant comparisons to the French Renaissance, and at one point even suggests that the Hacienda was the first place to combine music and dancing.
Um, no. The Manchester scene was hardly negligible, but it wasn't that important. And Factory Records was not the whole story -- it doesn't, for example, include The Smiths, The Stone Roses or Oasis. 24 Hour Party People seems to know this, hence the ironic flavour. This is an extraordinarily self-conscious film, with Wilson telling us about missing scenes, pointing out the celebrity cameos and giving us such lessons as "This scene is symbolic -- it works on two levels!" The real Howard DeVoto appears onscreen beside the actor playing him to say, "I really don't remember this happening, you know." And Wilson has an answer to that, too: "If it's a choice between fact and legend, go for the legend."
"This is not a film about me!" says Wilson more than once, but that's exactly what it is -- a comedy about an inspired doofus. Steve Coogan nails the voice and mannerisms of the real Wilson while giving off the broadly comic vibes of Peter Sellers and creating a performance that represents Winterbottom's vision of the Factory Records tale. Coogan communicates Wilson's clumsy stabs at profundity: He signs a contract in blood that declares there will be no contracts, he hilariously mixes genuinely passionate lines with overreaching pseudo-intellectual babble, and he encapsulates a group of people who had good ideas and a lack of common sense, who found themselves stabbing in the dark, ending up with bits of great art and a helluva lot of problems.
Winterbottom's unruly visuals are like a time capsule, mimicking the look of old television footage by filming on cheap videotape and seamlessly matching new footage with archive pictures. On top of these grubby shots are title cards that jump about the screen radiating acid house colours. It's as chaotic and confounding as the real midst of a movement -- this is a movie of hyperkinetic mess, pulling us in and along with giddy energy, and in its own way, it's brilliant
(Complete review posted at www.ukcritic.com)
Released by MGM/United Artists and rated "R" for strong language, drug use, and sexuality.