FAC 401 24 Hour Party People > Sight & Sound article
The pretend Happy Mondays in 24 Hour Party People
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There can be few more defunct currencies in cinema than nostalgia. Films that trade in the past without yearning for its unreachable pleasures are so rare that when one does arrive, it may feel as collectible as a newly minted coin. 24 Hour Party People is one such picture. Its director Michael Winterbottom has some experience of rescuing period pieces from the nullifying furnace of history: his two Thomas Hardy adaptations, Jude (1996) and The Claim (2000), a version of The Mayor of Casterbridge, shared an immediacy that refused to recognise distinctions between past and present. The case Of 24 HourParty People is slightly more complicated - this is history so close you can smell it, touch it and, if you're of a certain age (roughly late twenties to early forties), even remember how you participated in it. Beginning in 1976 with a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester which apparently inspired the foppish television presenter Tony Wilson to establish Factory Records and open the Hacienda, and ending in 1992 with the demise of both enterprises, the film has a unique advantage over other music biopics: it immortalises an era so recent that, unlike punk or jazz, it has not yet acquired the protective shell that can form after decades of memoirs, documentaries and reunion tours. In other words, the rules are waiting to be written.
That might account for the filin's jubilant tone, which suggests a smash-and-grab raid on a period that was never intended to be preserved for posterity. Frank Cottrell Boyce's catch-all screenplay and Winterbottom's direction, which veers between cinema verité and a kind of knockabout, Richard Lesteresque irreverence, don't work towards that sense of definitive truth that is commonly sought by biopics. At times they actively undermine their own filin's authenticity. When Wilson (a mixture of fond impersonation and character assassination by Steve Coogan) finds his wife (Shirley Henderson) having sex in a toilet cubicle with the Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock), the camera drifts over to a cleaner, played by the real Devoto, who bluntly assures us that the incident we have just witnessed never happened. Vacillation is not something associated with the biopic. Nor does the genre commonly countenance wilful oversights, such as the moment late in the narrative when Wilson introduces the eight-year-old son he had forgotten to tell us about earlier in the film.
Audiences look to the biopic genre to see legends being systematically authorised by cinema, as in Ali, or to watch the dirt being dished, as in Mommie Dearest (1981) or Tina: What's Love Got to Do with It? (1993). At the very least they expect that the information they are presented with will be dependable. An unreliable narrator does not preclude an audience's identification, but when that volatile element is introduced into a biopic, the assumption of truth implicit in the genre is jeopardised. Does a biopic that plays games with its audience's trust forfeit its right to be recognised as part of that genre?
If so, then the makers of 24 Hour Party People will not be unduly perturbed. The picture is interested in Factory, not facts; it evokes the general spirit of the era, and if that means absorbing into its fabric all the folklore, gossip and self aggrandisement inherent in any atmosphere of fierce creativity, then the conventions of the genre will just have to suffer. This makes the movie sound organic, puritanical even, but of course it's more calculated than that. The film has at its disposal an element that is guaranteed to stem or at least compromise any flow of nostalgia. it's called irony.
This quality does not in itself make Winterbottom's film unique - recent comedies such as The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) and The Wedding Singer 1997) have scrutinised their decades of choice through a gauze of irony and kitsch that relegates the filmic experience to the level of flicking through an old student yearbook to laugh at the tassled corduroy jackets, the crimped fringes. What distinguishes 24 Hour Party People is that it mixes its dollops of irony and nostalgia on the same palette, on the same brush, creating vivid new tones. The irony prevents the nostalgia from blurring into sentimentality; there's always an outlandish touch like the flying saucer that descends to herald the arrival of Happy Mondays' resident bug-eyed dancer Bez, or God appearing to Tony Wilson in the form of Tony Wilson - to act as a distancing device. And when the opposite effect is required, as during the funeral of lan Curtis (Sean Harris), the joy Division singer who committed suicide, a compassionate glow temporarily defrosts the filin's crisp layer of cool. As they gather around the open casket, Curtis' grandmother commends Wilson on being so well dressed whenever he appears on television, before Wilson plants a kiss on the dead man's forelock, a striking counterpoint to the brittle relationship he enjoyed with him in life.
The film utilises these opposing qualities to maintain a harmonious balance between facetiousness of hindsight and the idealism of nostalgia but its trump card is the decision to employ Wilson, (as played by Steve Coogan) as narrator. pogoing at a Sex Pistols gig, receiving a blowjob from a prostitute or presenting an absurd broadcast about a goose that herds sheep, everything Coogan's Wilson does is characterised by an irreproachable sincerity that can be strangely businesslike. Despite being self aware - the opening scene finds him hang-gliding for a local news report before lecturing us, straight to camera, about the subtest about what we've just seen - he seems devoid of self-consciousness, which lends him a touching immunity to embarrassment not unlike that of Coogan's own cleverest creation, the deluded DJ Alan Partridge.
As Coogan himself has observed, Wilson is like Partridge without the ego, and indeed the movie itself is blessed with a similar absence of manipulative tendencies, not to mention a self-awareness equal to Wilson's. It is, after all, a movie that knows it's a movie. Wilson persistently refers to the film itself, and keeps tipping us off about what's going to happen later - that those urchins slumped in front of the television deriding that singer with the over-sized moustache will later become the nub of the Happy Mondays and will eventually duet with the object of their ridicule, Karl Denver; that the geeky ginger kid over there is Mick Hucknall (cut to library footage of a Simply Red stadium gig later); that those reedy young men who don't like they could get arrested will become New Order (cue flash-forward to the band performing 'World in Motion' to a crowd of thousands).
This technique gives the material a tenor as close to epic as something so parochial is ever likely to come, but it also does an inevitable disservice to reality. Although Wilson undoubtedly displayed faith and vision in signing acts as stubbornly offbeat as Joy Division or the Durutti Column, the truth is that there can never be a guaranteed masterplan in an industry as capricious as the music business. The use of those flash-forwards, gratifying as they are to an audience's sense of superiority, its hunger for privileged knowledge, counters that feeling of spontaneity and makes the success of Factory look preordained. Most likely, Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay is just honouring its narrator's self-mythologising tendencies, his insatiable appetite for retrospective glory.
But in other ways the film undermines Factory's icy authority, which always seemed so imposing to those of us whose involvement amounted to nothing more than buying the records. The austere artwork, the authoritative FAC catalogue numbers, the chilly rigour of the music belonged with those other enigmatic entities 4AD and Mute rather than with the jangly, ramshackle likes of Rough Trade (home to the Smiths) or Postcard (Orange Juice, Aztec Camera). In one sense, 24 Hour Party People debunks that myth. We see how the label's aesthetic style prospered at the expense of its profits: the beautifully designed tickets and posters that only arrived on the night of a gig; the complex and expensive sleeve for New Order's 'Blue Monday' which ensured Factory would lose 5p for every copy sold (it went on to become the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time). And we see how the anarchic, druggy abandon of Happy Mondays was not at all the defiance of the Factory way it had seemed at the time but rather a consolidation of qualities and behaviour that had been there all along. On the other hand, the whole notion of a biopic, a means of taking stock and placing someone or something in its proper historical or social context, automatically brings definition to a period that in its energy and immediacy was meant to be lived through and savoured, not reflected upon.
Despite this, 24 Hour Party People is never disloyal to its subject. Robby Muller's unpolished DV photography approximates a documentary effect that complicates any hints of nostalgia or hindsight; everything appears to be existing in the same moment, free from any note of sepia-tinged reflection, and this impression is augmented by Wilson's habit of stepping outside the narrative in classic Annie Hall fashion to pass ironic judgement on what we are watching. The film also disrupts its own potential for self-contained nostalgia by acknowledging each of its star cameos, thereby withdrawing from aficionados the exclusive privilege to chuckle knowingly at those semi-famous faces hidden in the background. It has become an unacknowledged pleasure of the modem biopic to play hunt-the-real-life-subject: there's the real Melvin Dummar working in a bus-station cafe in Melvin and Howard (1980), and isnt that the actual Erin Brockovich playing a waitress in Erin Brockovich (2ooo)? This clandestine pursuit is subverted in 24 Hour Party People. The fictional Wilson not only points out to us the real Wilson, in a self reflexive cameo as a television director, but also takes us back through the rest of the film to reveal the cameos we might have missed - there's Mani from the Stone Roses and Mark E. Smith from the Fall, both in the unenviable position of having to play their younger selves from behind well-worn faces that suggest years of on-the-road decay and debauchery. They're like the rotting portraits in the attic that enable Tony Wilson to be reborn here in new, slimline form, just as the real cast of the sitcom Taxi performed the same function for the memory of Andy Kauftnan in Man on the Moon (1999).
It's crucial to the film's sense of urgency that its narrator can cross boundaries between past and future, fiction and reality, and even have his own contribution as Factory biographer challenged, as in the Howard Devoto scene. But not all of Wilson's fallibility as narrator seems entirely intentional. His claim, after lan Curtis' suicide, that the real Curtis was often a source of buoyancy and happiness cannot alone be corroborated by a brief insert of the singer bouncing through a rendition of 'Louie, Louie'; after all, every other glimpse of him in the movie has focused on a stubbornly unyielding face that cannot be appeased even by the revelation of a brilliant studio session or the promise of a US tour. This attempt to suggest qualities that weren't resident in Curtis, or which must be taken on faith, is the closest the movie comes to the casual hagiography of the conventional biopic.
But Winterbottom genuinely doesn't seem to have an agenda beyond committing to celluloid the vibrancy of a particular scene that might otherwise have been discarded. No attempts are made to connect with the current obsessions of younger audience members, which is a heartening rejection of that creaky cinematic device which tries to smuggle in the past undercover of its relevance to the present. Not that there aren't opportunities in 24 Hour Party People to lecture young viewers about the influence of the Manchester scene on the recreational pursuits they now take for granted. But despite the arrival of Ecstacy in the film's third act, the temptation to draw connections between the Haçienda and modern clubbing is mercifully resisted; nothing ages a period film faster than that quest for artificial pertinence.
This is modern history existing for its own sake, and any external commentary is likely to come not from the film but from the viewer's own relationship with the music. The current decline in popularity of the independent scene, and the bizarre promotion of anodyne bands like Travis and Coldplay to the alternative status once deservedly occu pied by the likes of New Order and Happy Mondays only makes the movie's existence feel more justified, more necessary. Unlike punk, which ha such established if contradictory film documents a The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1979) and The Filth and the Fury (2000) to keep it pulsing, the Manchester music scene did not exert enough internationa influence to guarantee a similar longevity. The spirit of the Sex Pistols is still visible, albeit in greatly diluted form, in modern bands such as Limp Bizkit and Green Day. But the need to stake out th territory of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays feels more pressing, and cinema, like literature, is nothing if not the great validator, the mirror in which reflections may dim but never fade.
In the assumed hierarchy of artforms, cinema is still some way above pop music, and when the two are fused there can be a thrilling frisson in tha meeting between 'high' and 'low' art, whether it's ai experimental exercise like Godard's One Plus Or (1968) or a narrative one such as Velvet Goldmine (1998). Unlike film, music has always been regarde as a disposable artform, and when its practitionei are captured on celluloid, a process of authentication takes place - cinema confers a stamp of approval that is pleasantly at odds with the nature of the material, the value of which has always been assessed largely by the individual consumer, or in the pages of the NME. Once it has been adopted as fitting subject for a movie, the music ceases to be something played on hi-fis in the bedrooms of taciturn teenagers, as Joy Division predominantly was, and takes its place in a less ephemeral roll call.
The process of putting the Manchester scene on film is therefore an important act of validation. It places those bands in the company of other mus cians who have been endorsed by cinema - Glenn Miller, Charlie Parker, the Beatles, the Doors. To anyone who brooded over Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, or did their homework to the Durutti Column's The Guitar and Other Machines, or let down their hair, parted in curtains, naturally, to Happy Mondays' Pills 'n Thrills and Bellyaches, an edifying transformation will have taken place. The fact that it has been effected in a film that largely rejects the emasculating power of blind nostalgia is reflected by the choice of music over the closing credits: New Order song, yes, but a new composition ('Here to Stay') rendered, for added freshness, in a Chemical Brothers remix. Did any film about the past ever lean so affectionately towards the future?
'24 Hour Party People' opens on 5 April