Friday, May 11, 2012

Favorite Films #8: 24 Hour Party People

This is Manchester… The Home of a Genius, a Poet, & a Twat Named Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson raves about the place he calls home that is Manchester as he cites it as the place where the Industrial Revolution was born. While commenting about the city’s historical importance inside the Hacienda nightclub that he co-founded. He also says it’s where the white man has finally learned how to dance as this unique character is dancing with the young people to the rave music of A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray. All of this told by Steve Coogan in the role of late Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson in a smarmy yet whimsical portrayal.

24 Hour Party People, named after the Happy Mondays song, is the story about the rise and fall of Factory Records starting from the days of mid-70s punk rock to the end of the Madchester rave culture in 1992. While a film like this could’ve been told in a traditional rise-and-fall formula that is often typical with most music bio-pics before and since this film’s release. In the hands of British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. Conventional doesn’t exist with this film in order to make it standout from the many films about music scenes and artists that is often told in a formulaic fashion.

The film would mark the fifth collaboration between Winterbottom and Boyce as they began collaborating in 1990 for Winterbottom’s second TV film Forget About Me. The collaboration would span through various genres such as the serial-killer road drama Butterfly Kiss, the Bosnian-war drama Welcome to Sarajevo, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge in the snowy period Western The Claim, the dream-like sci-fi romance of Code 46, and culminating it with 2005’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story about the making of an un-filmable book. Winterbottom’s collaboration with Bryce would help him become of Britain’s most adventurous filmmakers as he would delve from one genre to another not making the same film twice.

In 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom tackles the world of a music scene set in different periods that ranges from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s while shooting in on location in Manchester. Though the famed Hacienda nightclub had been closed in 1997 and has become an apartment complex after its 2002 demolishing. It was one of the few parts of the film where sets had to be built in order to recreate a lost period in time. Re-creating a period is one thing but to tell a story about a period in time with many famous artists like Joy Division/New Order and the Happy Mondays is another things. Particularly as they were very popular in Britain while New Order had a few major hits in the U.S. and the Mondays only experiencing minor in the U.S.

There’s a certain formula on how to tell a bio-pic about an artist, a band, or a particular music scene. It’s a formula that’s been told in numerous movies about an artist or a band. Often to the point that it becomes parody like the very underrated 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story by Jake Kasdan that starred John C. Reilly. There’s a lot of problems with making films that are based on facts and real people where if it was told in a documentary. It would get facts straights as well as differing opinions about what really happened. If it’s interesting and doesn’t try to reveal too much, that would be successful. In a dramatic form, it’s the trickiest thing to do where it’s not just that certain facts had to be told along with what song to highlight. It’s also about how to tell a story in a dramatic fashion to make it seem appealing to the audience. One of the problems with this approach is that there’s certain dramatic liberties that is needed to make the story more dramatic.

It’s that formula that often ruins these bio-pics because someone who knew about that scene or that artist would say “wait a minute, that didn’t happen” while an artist, if they’re alive, would say “that didn’t happen”. It’s often the downside of these dramatic bio-pics where other aspects include the stories about individuals where they want to know more about this instead of that. What Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce did was to throw away the rule book and just create a story that is off the wall. Not basing it entirely on facts but legends that makes the story much more interesting.

One such scene is at the first Factory Records concert with Joy Division and Vini Reilly, in his Durutti Column moniker, are performing where Tony Wilson and club owner Don Tonay are cavorting with prostitutes in the back of a van. Tony’s then wife Lindsay (played with great enthusiasm by Shirley Henderson) catches her husband getting a blow-job as she leaves in amusement as she would later have sex with the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto in a bathroom. Tony catches her and leaves in disgust where he bumps into a janitor who then says, “I don’t remember any of this happening”. It is revealed to the real Howard Devoto where Tony Wilson, via voice-over commentary, states that he and Howard agree that this didn’t happen but he quotes John Ford on sticking with the legend instead of the real story.

This approach to telling the story of Factory Records’ rise and fall would lead to a series of strange cameos, offbeat jokes, and other unconventional ideas that would lead to the creating a film that doesn’t bother getting the facts right. Yet, it doesn’t need to because it is a film that is aware that not everything is true. For the audience that knows about this scene and the music, it gives them a chance to relax because they don’t have to worry about the facts. Especially since it’s told by a character who is this pseudo-intellectual twat who comments throughout the entirety of the film though he claims to be a supporting character in this film.

Still, it’s an exaggerated of Tony Wilson as the real TV journalist for Granada television that would co-found Factory Records makes a cameo late in the film directing a British version of Wheel of Fortune. It’s part of what makes the film unique as Coogan’s very cool performance points him out as he knows he’s just playing this off-the-wall version of Tony Wilson. Nothing in the film is quite realistic yet it is an engaging one because it plays up to the craziness of a music scene that started out from this local phenomenon to something that would capture the world of popular culture in Britain.

Boyce’s screenplay does have a traditional structure in the way the film sets up its rise and fall angle. Even as its narrator would point out the structure of the story as the first act of the film is about the founding of Factory Records, the legendary TV show So It Goes, the rise and fall of Joy Division, and the gig that would change everything not just for Manchester but would become a key moment in the history of British popular music. This event would be the Sex Pistols’ show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. This scene is presented with a mixture of re-enactments and actual footage of this performance.

Why is this performance considered to be a legendary touchstone for the history of British popular music? Well, as it is explained by Tony Wilson as he narrates everything while he’s at the show. It was because this was one of the few gigs the Sex Pistols were playing outside of London at the time when they were just on the rise. What was more important about this event was who showed at the gig. Wilson, Factory Records co-founder Alan Erasmus (played by Lennie James), members of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, and future Smiths vocalist Steven Morrissey. In the film, Wilson compares this event to all sorts of Biblical events as if history was happening. Particularly for the city of Manchester were before this event, there wasn’t much of a local scene as bands who were from Manchester moved to London and became big stars.

Because of this event and the show that Tony Wilson spawned So It Goes that would introduce Britain to these new bands that would bring rock music back down to Earth. It would lead to a very humorous moment where Wilson starts a series of shows for local bands that would include an intense performance from the actors playing the members of Joy Division performing Digital with a mix of black-and-white cinematography and color to give it a home-movie feel courtesy of cinematographer Robby Mueller. Mueller’s digital photography was truly one-of-a-kind for the way it plays with style and it would evolve throughout the different periods of the story.

The mixture of grainy camera footage of color and black-and-white played up to the differing style as it was evident in the film’s first act that included a haunting performance from Sean Harris as Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis and Andy Serkis as the brash music producer Martin Hannett. It’s part of the film’s emphasis on its rise but Curtis’ 1980 suicide that led to Joy Division’s dissolution would later foretell everything else that would happen late in the film. It is also where the second act starts as Wilson talks to the camera where his first wife has left him and he just lost a great band only to remind the audience that this film is not about him but about Manchester.

What Tony Wilson says that the film isn’t about him is sort of right. It is about people like Ian Curtis of Joy Division who was this troubled genius with epilepsy that would lead one of the most influential bands in the history of popular music. Yet, his suicide would end one era while the remaining members of Joy Division would reinvent themselves as the electronic group New Order. One of the film’s highlights in the first act, though it’s a very chilling scene, is the way Winterbottom recreates Curtis’ suicide where he just shows legs dangling above the floor while Werner Herzog’s Strozek is playing on the TV. It’s one of the rare moments of the film where Winterbottom and Boyce go into great detail to get Curtis’ final moments right exactly as it was described for so many years since his death.

Other characters that are present in this first act of the film are a series of colorful individuals like Factory Records co-founder Alan Erasmus and Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton, played by Paddy Considine, who would often have scene-stealing moments of the film due to his short-temper. Considine’s performance as the late Gretton is often stated to be the most accurate performance of any of these personalities.

Andy Serkis’ performance of Martin Hannett is also a highlight of the film in every way and form as Serkis brings a lot of dark charm into this very troubled character. Notably in the scene where Tony asks him to produce Joy Division as Tony asks what he’s doing. Martin replies, “Recording… silence”. Tony says, “you’re recording silence?” as Martin replies, “no, I’m recording Tony fookin’ Wilson”. Yet, Hannett would prove to be this larger-than-life persona who often spars with Tony and later try to kill him as he would appear in part of the film’s second act as the producer for the Happy Mondays.

Characters like Gretton, Erasmus, and Hannett are among the many personalities that is explored in this film while smaller ones like Factory Records art designer Peter Saville, played by Winterbottom regular Enzo Clienti, is also presented. Yet, he is a character with quirks where he would often bring his works of art like posters and tickets late in the game while the sleeve he would design for New Order’s Blue Monday single would prove to be an expensive one. This expensive sleeve would foretell the financial misfortunes that Factory Records would experience late in the film.

It is among the many quirks presented in that film as lesser-known acts like A Certain Ratio and Vini Reilly do get a chance to shown. Though it’s the latter who is played as a joke where he’s this brilliant artist that is misunderstood and overlooked as Tony Wilson often states that his music is great music to chill out to. The real Vini Reilly does make a brief cameo in a montage where Tony lists out all of the real people who make cameos though Reilly’s cameo is only a second to emphasize how obscure he is. Tony would later claim that he’s from a longer scene that he believes will be on the film’s DVD release (it wasn’t).

While the film’s second act about the opening of the Hacienda, the success of Blue Monday, and the discovery of The Happy Mondays that led to this massive new wave of British pop culture known as Madchester. It’s a much looser portion of the film where there’s a lot of uncertainty as Tony tries to find the next big thing while there’s a lot of silly mayhem that occurs to introduce the Ryder brothers who would form the Happy Mondays. Notably this very strange scene where Shaun and Paul Ryder (played respectively by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell) are throwing bread at pigeons where the bread is filled with rat poison thousands of them fall to their death as Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is playing. It’s among one of the film’s surreal moments as Shaun Ryder would later encounter a UFO in the air as it brought down a unique individual name Bez (Chris Coghill) who would be the percussionist/mascot of the Happy Mondays.

Things would get crazier once the Happy Mondays become the focus since they were a very notorious band that did drugs, notably Ecstasy, as they would help start this new wave of rhythmic dance music with indie-rock guitars that would become part of the Madchester wave. Through surreal images where the Mondays and its backing singer Rowetta (who is played by herself) are in a bus while Tony gets caught up in this world of excess that is played in this surreal montage. Notably as it would set up everything that is to happen in the third act where Tony Wilson talks to Rob Gretton about this crazy day where he was supposed to interview someone and had to travel all over Britain in a crazed haze of cocaine.

Drugs are often the catalyst for the downfall of an artist of a music scene but this film is not one of those bio-pics. In fact, drugs do play part in this story about the rise and fall of Factory Records but things become more complicated. In early scene in the film, Tony Wilson talks to various local musicians about his ideas for Factory Records. Since the recording industry is a very seedy industry that his a long history of screwing the artist over money and recording ownership. What Tony Wilson offered to his artists that would sign with Factory Records should’ve been a great idea. The artists don’t want to get screwed over while the label heads don’t want to be screwed. Tony says that the artists had the freedom to fuck off, do whatever they want, and they split whatever profits are made evenly. All of which was presented in a contract that was written in Tony Wilson’s blood in another comical yet fun scene.

It’s a great concept for what a record label should do but the financial mishandling over the sleeve design for the Blue Monday 12-inch single and the little profit that came into the investment of the Hacienda would eventually cause trouble. Drugs, money, and mismanagement would play to the fall of Factory Records as one small but very comical scene involved Rob Gretton trying to kill Tony Wilson over an expensive table in the meeting room of the record company. Though the Hacienda was a popular club and the epicenter of the rave culture in the early 90s, Wilson stated that it never made money because people were buying Ecstasy instead of alcohol and there were more Ecstasy dealers who weren’t working at the Hacienda that did lead to some violent problems with the club.

The film’s third act does dwell into the label’s fall that included Martin Hannett’s death and the financial mismanagement of the label. Notably in the latter as New Order spent 400,000 pounds to make their 1993 album Republic in Ibiza that was quite costly at the time. Meanwhile, the Happy Mondays also made an expensive album in Barbados where things were bad as it was presented in a comical fashion as Shaun Ryder, whom Wilson claimed to be the best poet since Yates, had trouble riding lyrics. The trouble that the Mondays created would serve as the moment the label started to fall apart where Wilson ended up buying the master tapes of Yes Please! for 50 pounds only to hear the album with the people in the label with no vocals.

The timing could’ve been worse for Factory Records, who were losing lots of money and influence, as the music pendulum was now shifting back towards the U.S. as grunge started to take over. The film’s tense scene where Tony Wilson, the Mondays, and members of the Factory Records meet with London Records label head Roger Ames (played by comedian Keith Allen) where it would feature the notorious comment of Shaun Ryder saying he’s going out for some Kentucky Fried Chicken (slang for heroin). Though that comment would be followed by the band actually holding buckets of KFC, it’s inter-cut with this very dramatic moment where Tony Wilson decides to give in to Ames’ demands but reveal that he wants to be known for not selling out. Yet, it’s Rob Gretton who would have the last word as he reflects on everything that just happened.

It’s a grim ending to any scene or label that rose high and then fall big. Yet, it’s the big failures that people will remember as the film does choose to end it with one final rave that features the ghosts of Martin Hannett and Ian Curtis along all of the characters in the film leading to a very comical ending on the rooftop of the Hacienda. There, Tony Wilson is smoking grass with Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton, and Shaun Ryder where he sees God. God, in the form of Steve Coogan, tells Tony Wilson that Shaun Ryder is indeed the greatest poet since Yates and suggests to create a compilation for Vini Reilly. It’s a funny ending where Tony tells his mates what he sees as in a very appropriate manner, Rob Gretton has the final word.

It’s a very strange way to end the film just after all that has happened to Factory Records. Still, it’s an appropriate one considering that it’s Tony Wilson’s story despite his claims to be a supporting character. Why would anyone want to end the film on a down note? After all, if you’re going to fail. Fail big. Nobody remembers failure unless it’s big. Big failures will give anyone notoriety no matter how bad it is. Sure, it will be unpleasantly but if one does it in a colorful manner. At least there’s praise for that effort to fail spectacularly.

It’s among the many reasons for why 24 Hour Party People is a such a unique film because it refuses to play by the rules of the conventional music bio-pic. Most of all, it’s carried by music that is truly unique ranging from all sorts of styles. The punk rock of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Buzzcocks to the post-punk music of Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. Then it evolves into the early electronic music of New Order and then through more rhythmic rave-type of stuff like A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State, Marshall Jefferson, and the Madchester indie-dance of the Happy Mondays. Of course, there’s also Durutti Column in which Tony Wilson is right about. It’s good music to chill out to.

If it wasn’t for that film, people might’ve not known more about a lot of these groups. They probably realize that there’s more to New Order than just Blue Monday, True Faith, and Bizarre Love Triangle. Particularly for the fact that there’s not a lot of people that knew that New Order were Joy Division as the latter was a more acclaimed band that really should have equal stature with acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin before them. Then there’s the Happy Mondays who only had minor success in the American modern rock charts of the early 90s though they were very huge in Britain until they fell very hard with 1992’s Yes, Please and immediately broke up.

Then there’s the late Tony Wilson who sadly passed away in August of 2007. Despite all of the chaos he created in the fall of Factory Records and how he mismanaged everything, there is no denying of the impact he made for British music. Notably for the city of Manchester that would later open up a lot more regional scenes in the U.K. rather than having bands to go to London to make it big. This would force music executives from London to go to these cities instead of the other way around. If it wasn’t for the music scene of Manchester, there wouldn’t be the Brit-pop revolution of the mid-1990s that finally kicked out all of the established acts like Tina Turner, Phil Collins, and Bryan Adams from the radio airwaves. Kids wanted to listen to something different as that music scene left a very important legacy.

As for the film itself, 24 Hour Party People is a film that proves that a music bio-pic doesn’t have to follow the rules. If it wasn’t for that film, Todd Haynes probably wouldn’t have made 2007’s Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There which was a more radical film in terms of its unconventionality and subject matter. Plus, it also proves that it’s OK to exaggerate things by telling everyone this is an exaggeration. 24 Hour Party People is that kind of film where Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce just went out there and tell all the rules of the conventional bio-pic to simply fuck-off!

© thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

Good review. I think the main character summed it up best when he said, "I'm a minor character in my own story." I liked how the film broke the fourth wall in multiple ways and I enjoyed the music. In college I had a roommate who was a big Joy Division/New Order fan, so he introduced me to their music.

thevoid99 said...

Again, this is an essay, not a review. The review is in the link below.

It's a film that stands out on its own because it doesn't stray into the ideas of what we know as the bio-pic. Breaking the fourth wall down and having the protagonist claiming to be a minor character is why the film succeeds.

I was introduced to New Order through the music being played in movies but I was introduced to Joy Division through Nine Inch Nails.

I much prefer Joy Division over New Order but I do love both bands equally. If only Peter Hook would rejoin the band, I would be elated in seeing them.