REVIEW: A New Magical Mystery Tour; Winterbottom Rocks With "24 Hour Party People"
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This review originally ran in May 2002 as part of indieWIRE’s Cannes 2002 coverage. United Artists releases the film on Friday.]
Michael Winterbottom‘s “24 Hour Party People” joins an impressive list of rock & roll movies that have energized film over the decades, ranging from seminal entries like “The Girl Can’t Help It” through biopics like “The Buddy Holly Story” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” to mention just a few.
And of course “Sid and Nancy,” which Winterbottom’s new opus somewhat resembles in its helter-skelter energy and portrait of a semi-anarchic time. The film also reconfirms Winterbottom as an auteur who’s hard to pin down. The button-pushing director of “Butterfly Kiss” (1995) morphed into an adapter of Thomas Hardy novels with “Jude” (1996) and “The Claim” (2000), making the politically charged “Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997) and the Altman-esque epic “Wonderland” (1999) along the way. His subjects and styles elude neat generic pigeonholes. Shot on digital video, “24 Hour Party People” chronicles the rock scene in Manchester, England, from the emergence of the Sex Pistols in 1976 until the endgame of Tony Wilson‘s recording and club-owning career in the early ’90s.
Wilson, rambunctiously played by Steve Coogan, is the ubiquitous guide of this post-Beatles magical mystery tour. He participates in every notable incident and frequently turns to the camera with spunky comments, annotations, and asides. He also provides the film’s most clever storytelling device, since his offhand remarks allow screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce to cram enormous amounts of information into a two-hour running time. At first, the direct-address technique threatens to make the picture too arty and self-conscious for the aggressively grungy story it has to tell, but Coogan’s magnetic acting pulls it off. It’s an efficient way to convey both atmosphere and detail. It also suits the personality of Wilson himself, wheeling and dealing in the rock world’s lower depths while wearing spiffy suits, boasting about his Cambridge degree, and insisting that Manchester’s madness is postmodern to its bones.
The story kicks into gear at an early Sex Pistols’ concert, which Wilson — then a self-promoting local TV host — applauds as a history-changing spectacle even though the audience is in the low two figures. Wilson sees the future and its name is punk, post-punk, new wave, rave, and whatever else his new recording company might be able to peddle. The film’s trajectory roughly follows that of Wilson’s main enterprise, Factory Records, and the bands it presents: the seminal Joy Division and it’s second-generation, New Order, the Happy Mondays, and others. Also important is the Hacienda, a dream nightclub Wilson sets up with all the trimmings: cool decor, hot acoustics, cutting-edge music. What’s missing is customers — until a jaunty new drug enters the picture, luring Manchester’s youth to spend whole nights in Hacienda ecstasy. At this point, Wilson’s outlook seems rosy, but other complications lie in wait. Some are enticing — an expensive new office, a buy-out offer. Some are daunting — marital troubles, a musician who needs rehab. And some are tragic, as when Ian Curtis, the Joy Division singer, hangs himself while watching Werner Herzog‘s grim “Stroszek” on TV.
Wilson takes it all in stride, buoyed by his brash self-confidence and a conviction that playing outside the rules has somehow insulated him from ordinary laws of cause and effect. Sure enough, when the best option ultimately seems to sell out, he’s immune to the temptation, since the only thing he actually owns is the nonstop adventure of his career. On this level, “24 Hour Party People” may be a personal statement by Winterbottom, suggesting that mercurial creativity is its own reward — and has to be, since audiences and critics habitually lag behind artists, even in pop culture.
In ways, “24 Hour Party People” is too trendy for its own good, plugging into MTV aesthetics with fidgety camerawork and a steady barrage of hard-to-read logos and labels. The opening scene is gimmicky and the mock-hallucination climax — when Wilson converses with an angelic alter ego — is far less funny than it wants to be. The film is also too traditional in some respects, with familiar characters — cheeky innovator, scruffy sidekicks — and a story arc that eventually pivots on the old cliche that pop cultures inevitably breed drug scenes leading to violence, shootouts, and less fun for everyone. It’s a factual scenario, but we’ve been this way before, and Boyce’s screenplay doesn’t always live up to the edginess of its material. These shortcomings keep “24 Hour Party People” from rocking all the way around the clock. But it packs a wallop nonetheless, with Coogan’s canny performance lending pitch-perfect balance to the centrifugal energy of Winterbottom’s flyaway style. Credit also goes to a solid supporting cast, including Andy Serkis, Shirley Henderson, Sean Harris, and Paddy Considine. The film’s faux-chaotic mannerisms may be too offbeat for mass audiences, but rock-film aficionados should cheer. Never mind the bollocks, it’s Michael Winterbottom.