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Party All the Time

 

24 Hour Party People

Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2002

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: September 22, 2002

By Laurence Station

By the mid 1970s, Manchester, England was a dying industrial town, blighted by poverty, rising crime rates and a disaffected youth culture that sought to express its boredom and frustration via the most outrageous means available. Hence, spurred on by the punk movement sweeping the country -- and directly connected to a concert by the Sex Pistols in which all of forty-two people showed up -- the seeds for the subsequent ecstasy-fueled rave scene sprouted.

Michael (The Claim, Welcome to Sarajevo) Winterbottom's high energy, extremely enjoyable fictional look at the heyday of the Manchester music scene focuses on TV personality turned record producer Tony Wilson's Factory Records, and that label's two most notable acts: Joy Division (who would evolve into the more commercially successful New Order) and Happy Mondays. Shot on digital video with an intentionally hyper-kinetic, free ranging style, 24 Hour Party People (taking its title from a Happy Mondays song) traces the rise and fall of Wilson's hopes for a revival of Manchester as a hip place to be and, most importantly, to be seen. Amazingly, everything Wilson could have hoped for -- notoriety for his beloved city, cool cachet, proprietor of the hottest club in town, Hacienda -- all come to pass during the heady '80s, before burning up in earlier prophesied Icarus-like fashion during the early '90s.

Wilson addresses the audience throughout, talking of history being made while history is actually being made. This proves Party People's biggest narrative gamble, one that, fortunately, pays off quite handsomely, thanks primarily to the smug but likable charm of Steve Coogan, who plays Wilson as a sort of devil-may-care thrill-seeker less interested in material trappings than in keeping things in constant motion. Wilson's breathless energy keeps his various mad schemes in the air -- from signing a pact with Joy Division in his own blood to fostering a bunch of hooligans that would one day turn into Happy Mondays, the band that would go on to define the rave-culture scene.

But much as Factory Records' two principal acts represented a sort of yin and yang of the Manchester scene, 24 Hour Party People is steeped in the dichotomy of life and death, of hope and despair. Winterbottom masterfully layers these opposing elements with a depth that, in the hands of a lesser director, might have come across as cheap and facile. In the film's most poignant scene, Wilson, on assignment for his "day job" as a roving TV reporter, learns of the 1980 suicide (by hanging) of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis, and has the local town crier announce Curtis' passing, clanging handbell and all.

The main knock against 24 Hour Party People, ultimately, is its subject, the very scene it takes such pains to celebrate. A feature film about one music scene in one city in the U.K. -- no matter how well executed -- unavoidably carries with it an insular, self-congratulatory air: it's the sort of feature one imagines that people who were there might appreciate, mostly for the in-jokes no one else is likely to get. That built-in exclusionary aspect further limits the appeal of a film that aims for a niche audience -- fans of this particular music and subculture -- to begin with. Not to mention the fact that, outside of England, Joy Division and Happy Mondays never enjoyed more than a cult status, which, while enduring, hardly qualifies them as legitimate crossover success stories.

While 24 Hour Party People may not find a large audience, the very fact that Winterbottom got it made, and in such an accomplished and entertaining fashion, is a credit to the filmmaker's resolve, and ultimately to the rusted-out but no less spirited city of Manchester, as well -- its people and the impressive music they created.

 
Party Music
While the vast majority of those who see 24 Hour Party People will already own music by the bands it celebrates, for the uninitiated the movie soundtrack is a good place to start, as it distills the major hits by the groups and is well-sequenced. For those seeking essential albums, Joy Division's 1979 effort Unknown Pleasures is a solid jumping off point, followed by the more recent, comprehensive box set Heart and Soul. Happy Mondays fans, meanwhile, would be hard-pressed to do better than the band's stellar 1990 release  Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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