by Lady Fitzsimmons and J.D. Lafrance
“I’ll just say one thing: Icarus. If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t…you should probably read more.”
Cue the music.
This is our introduction to Tony Wilson – scarecrow, cowardly lion and tin man all – is both heart-full and heartless, dependent upon whether on-camera or off – in public or in private as he stumbles onto the scene. The man of mystery that was Tony “Barabbas” Wilson, via Manchester, would take credit for everything from alternative club music to recreational pill-popping, one has to wonder how much of the product, and by-products, of “Madchester” would ever have existed if not for this strange, ego-tastic, hang-gliding creature.
The 1980s was a decade infested with bad music, from bloated hair metal to insipid New Wave music. In England, however, the city of Manchester was the breeding ground for a new generation of music. It was conceived in England’s late 1970s punk scene, when Joy Division recorded two landmark albums before their lead singer committed suicide. Arising from their ashes came New Order and, shortly thereafter, the Happy Mondays, spearheading a dance sound and movement fueled by heroin and ecstasy. At the center of it all was television presenter and demigod “producer” Tony Wilson who was so taken with the emerging music scene coming out Manchester that it moved him to partake in the creation of Factory Records. It gave him a platform to promote bands he liked; although he had a certain nose for talent, he had absolutely no sense of smell when it came to the business side of things.
After the label’s meteoric rise and fall, Wilson wrote a colorful account of it and the bands he signed through his hyperbolic point-of-view. It was material ripe for cinematic treatment with versatile filmmaker Michael Winterbottom bringing it to the big screen. Being a restless director, he’s dabbled in numerous genres, from war (Welcome to Sarajevo) to western (The Claim) to science fiction (Code 46). With 24 Hour Party People (2002), he tackles the musical biopic, but playfully turns its conventions on their head for an irreverent take that attempts to capture Wilson’s prose, as well as the spirit of the times, on film.
We go back to 1976 where Winterbottom starts poking holes in the artifice of film by having Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) address the audience – and point out the symbolism of the opening scene – in cheeky and pretentious fashion, which quickly establishes the man’s personality and also the playful, self-reflexive style that the film is going to use. Enter the Sex Pistols on a night, in a concert hall, with an audience of 42. Madchester was conceived in an orgy of synaptic fire that the musicians – both on the stage and in the crowd – created on June 4th, 1976. Instead of recreating the band’s performance, Winterbottom cuts back and forth from archival footage and his own as Tony explains the significance of this moment, how the few people in the audience were “feeding off a power, on an energy and a magic”… and drugs that would inspire the creation of Joy Division, Mick Hucknall to form Simply Red and mercurial music producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) to help create some of the greatest albums ever recorded.
Tony also held the reins of the only musical T.V. show coming out of Manchester. Not that this fed into any visions of grandeur and godliness he may have been nursing, but yeah, it did. He brought Little Known Artists, such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash to the public. From there, Tony creates a showcase for bands at a local nightclub one night a week. This was not your parents’ pub sing-a-long.
It is there that he meets Joy Division and their a decidedly mercurial introduction to lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) in an amusing scene where Winterbottom’s kinetic but purposeful hand-held camera captures the moment and then segues into a powerful recreation of a live performance of “Digital” with Sean Harris’ uncanny take on Curtis’ unique stage presence. Winterbottom films the band performing at certain times in black and white as an homage to Anton Corbijn’s iconic video for “Atmosphere.” It is both striking and sad. Black and white film conjures images of films from the dawn of modern culture. The digital camerawork gives its scenes a you-are-there immediacy by following the characters around, moving in close to eavesdrop on conversations.
The film grooves along and, much like Tony, flies fast and furious with the facts. Then, this isn’t a documentary. Whether Tony’s wife (Shirley Henderson) had sex with Howard Devoto (from the Buzzcocks) in a bathroom stall while Tony got head in a van out in the venue parking lot – we’ll never know for sure. To quote Tony, “… I agree with John Ford: ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend.’” In a cheeky moment, the film has the real Howard Devoto appear on-screen, break the fourth wall, and comment on something that their fictional incarnation claims that never actually happened, only to be reinforced by Tony’s voiceover narration. A common complaint leveled at biopics is with their historical inaccuracies, which is ridiculous because these films aren’t documentaries – they’re artistic interpretations. This film openly acknowledges and makes fun that it plays fast and loose with the facts.
24 Hour Party People is given a comedic jolt when Tony meets Martin Hannett out in the middle of nowhere recording silence (until Tony got there… then he recorded Tony fucking Wilson) to recruit him to produce Joy Division’s debut album. Hannett was a legendary music producer and notorious perfectionist who immediately butts heads with fellow self-enthusiast Tony. Hannett proceeds to infuriate the band with his demanding approach (“Faster but slower,” he tells their drummer) and insults (“You wear it very well…now play it like a fucking musician!” he tells the bass player).
Winterbottom puts Joy Division, and what they’re doing, into historical context by having Tony narrate over actual news footage documenting neo-fascists demonstrating in the streets of London, gasoline rationing, garbage men and nurses in London going on strike, and even gravediggers in Liverpool refusing to bury the dead (with 150 bodies stored in a factory at one point)! It shows the socio-political conditions that influenced Joy Division and other bands either consciously or subconsciously. The film only touches upon the complexity of Ian Curtis’ problems that drove him to commit suicide, portraying him as something of an enigmatic figure.
People have discussed, debated and written about Joy Division – specifically, Ian Curtis’ suicide – for decades. People who didn’t know the particulars were, as I recall, offended or, at the very least, divided when it came to the suicide scene. They thought that Winterbottom was once again adding comical surreality to a human tragedy. These details – the music (Iggy Pop’s The Idiot), the movie (Werner Herzog’s Stroszek), this scene in the film – were all true. Like many funerals, sometimes one suddenly gets an urge to laugh and Winterbottom treads a fine line of being respectful to Curtis’ memory and legacy and being irreverent. “That is the musical equivalent of Che Guevara,” Tony says of Curtis while observing the singer’s body at the funeral home. He caringly leans down, kissing his friend on the forehead, saying his good-byes.
24 Hour Party People takes on a funnier, in parts more absurdist turn during the second act with the introduction of the Happy Mondays. Tony says, “I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, ‘American lives don’t have second acts. Well this is Manchester. We do things differently here.” It’s a low point in the city’s music scene with Curtis’ death and a low point in Tony’s life with his wife leaving him. The Mondays were a chaotic, flippant band and Winterbottom adopts this tone for the second half of the film. This is evident in the scene where the Ryder brothers – Shaun (Danny Cunningham) and Paul (Paul Popplewell) – poison several hundred pigeons that start falling from the sky to the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries” in mock Apocalypse Now (1979) fashion, pigeon first-person perspective and all.
And then, a miracle of epic electric: the heavens, the powers that be, an alien spacecraft… whomever it was, decided these Merry Pranksters needed a Divine Intervention – and begat unto The Mondays and the world – Bez (Chris Coghill). He beams down in front of Shaun Ryder while Tony says in voiceover, “Every great band needs its own special chemistry and Bez was a great chemist,” while mock angelic music plays ironically. He was the catalyst that completed the Mondays, their muse and mascot.
Tony soon finds that one of the biggest differences between Joy Division and the Happy Mondays is that the former were much more serious musicians than the latter who were notoriously lazy and unfocused, testing even Martin Hannett’s resolve. More importantly, historically even more noteworthy than The Mondays’ entire back catalog, they signaled the beginning of rave culture, “the beatification of the beat,” as Tony puts it, where the disc jockey was the star. Winterbottom does a concisely creative job of showing Tony getting caught up in the hedonism of this enticing culture and lost touch with reality, thanks to a raging cocaine habit, fertilized by hanging out with The Mondays way too much. This, and his myriad of bad business decisions – allowing drugs into his nightclub, indulging the bands on his label, not bothering with proper legal and fiscal securities, to name a few – led to Factory Records’ demise.
Steve Coogan delivers a career best performance as he captures the self-mythologizing, self-importance of Tony Wilson. He’s not afraid to portray the man’s negative aspects and is clearly having fun playing a large than life figure –and the film’s Greek chorus. Coogan is also very adept at taking himself out of the film and addressing the audience in a way that feels both very natural and very funny, utilizing several styles, everything from the sad clown to pratfalls that border on self-abuse.
24 Hour Party People also features a Who’s Who of then up-and-coming English actors: Sean Harris playing Joy Division’s iconic lead singer Ian Curtis as sometimes abrasive but always with a doomed air about him; John Simm as Bernard Sumner – the guitarist for both Joy Division and New Order – a bemused figure initially but who gets increasingly tired of Tony’s antics; Paddy Considine playing Rob Gretton, the long-suffering manager of both bands; and Shirley Henderson as Lindsay Wilson, Tony’s first wife. Special mention goes to Andy Serkis’ immersive take on Martin Hannett, nailing the notoriously perfectionist producer’s mercurial personality as well as transforming himself physically into the man in his several stages. The actor manages to steal every scene he’s in, no easy feat when acting opposite someone like Steve Coogan.
Director Michael Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton were in a logging town in British Columbia scouting locations for The Claim (2000) and got to talking about making a film about music. Winterbottom liked Factory Records and suggested making it about the label. When they got back to England, he met with writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and told him that he was thinking about making a film about Factory Records. They had worked together previously on Butterfly Kiss (1995), Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), and The Claim (2000). Cottrell-Boyce felt so strongly about the subject matter that he told Winterbottom he’d kill him if he got someone else to write it. The writer said: “At first you think it’s the story of Ian Curtis, a rock ‘n’ roll suicide, or that of Shaun Ryder, classic rock ‘n’ roll excess,” but realized, after meeting Tony Wilson, that they were just two of many stories about the Manchester music scene, that the best way to tell them was through the T.V. show host because he was often in the middle of it all.
Cottrell-Boyce started working on the screenplay, interviewing people involved with the Manchester music scene for three to four months when Winterbottom asked him to do a rewrite on The Claim. Instead, he spent the next four days writing approximately half the script for 24 Hour Party People. He then finished rewrites on The Claim and went back to work on 24 Hour Party People. He eventually met with Coogan and they went through the script, rewriting a lot of it. Cottrell-Boyce then sent Wilson a copy of the script and “I thought he’d send out a hitman to kill me,” but instead called the writer up and asked to meet over drinks, which resulted in more changes to the script.
Winterbottom approached Steve Coogan before the script had even been written and asked if he’d be interested in starring in a film about Factory Records and Manchester. As it turned out, the actor had actually worked with Wilson in the late 1980s on a late night T.V. show and had gotten to know him for a bit. The actor even used to do an impression of the man, which anticipated his eventual casting in the role. Coogan’s take on Wilson was “that sort of foppish, self-conscious thing he has, it’s quite effeminate actually, and you can’t work out whether he’s being incredibly eloquent or just bullshitting, and it’s sort of in the middle.” Winterbottom picked Coogan because “the whole film was going to be built around that one person [Tony Wilson], we had to have someone who would really be able to not only carry the film but to create a real person out of this string of incidents.”
24 Hour Party People received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie works so well because it evokes genuine, not manufactured, nostalgia. It records a time when the inmates ran the asylum, when music lovers got away with murder. It loves its characters.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “It’s worthwhile alone for Mr. Coogan’s fine portrayal of Mr. Wilson as a sly, cantankerous question mark of a man who provokes more queries than he answers.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “ B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “This may be the first rock movie that isn’t really about a band, or even a movement, but a scene, a vibe, and the cultish buzz that attended it.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Coogan’s rendering of Wilson on a larger-than-life scale is endearing and quixotic. Coogan invests Wilson with a capacity for self-awareness, even at his most foolish.” The Guardian’s Philip French wrote, “If Wilson hadn’t existed, Steve Coogan, who impersonates him so engagingly, might well have invented him.” Sight and Sound magazine wrote, “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.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, Dennis Lim wrote, “Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce cultivate a tone of arch, upbeat piss-taking to recount a parade of immortal moments: alliances formed, clubs named, bands christened, signature sounds originated, deals signed in blood.” What did the real Tony Wilson think of the film? He claimed that it was “all made up. Which is good! … I tried hard to get them to make the film about the two really great stories, Curtis and Ryder, but I gave up when I realized where Coogan was going to go with it. And that’s fine. It’s his gig.”
To quote Robert Frost, “Nothing gold can stay.” Nothing great, truly sublime, can last forever, save the soul…as is thus demonstrated in the Hacienda’s last night. The spirits, the ghosts of a thousand Mancunians bloomed. As Tony says at one point: “It was like being on a fantastic fairground ride, centrifugal forces throwing us wider and wider. But it’s all right, because there’s this brilliant machine at the center that’s going to bring us back down to earth. That was Manchester. That is the Hacienda. Now imagine the machine breaks. For a while, it’s even better, because you’re really flying, but then, you fall, because nobody beats gravity.” Even though it closed in the summer of 1997, the bands that played there and the music they created lives on. This is perhaps Tony Wilson’s most fitting legacy for the manager, talent scout and raconteur helped the likes of Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays get their start and create records that have not only stood the test of time but have inspired and influenced countless others.
“Frank Cottrell-Boyce.” 24 Hour Party People Production Notes. 2002.
“Michael Winterbottom.” 24 Hour Party People Production Notes. 2002.
Morley, Paul. “Shooting the Past.” The Guardian. February 23, 2001.