Deeper into Movies: "24 Hour Party People" (2002)

24 Hour Party People, starring Steve Coogan
Courtesy of MGM/UA

As the title suggests, 24 Hour Party People is a film about self-indulgence. The story of Tony Wilson and Factory Records — the label that spawned Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays — it’s an unflinching look at vice, obsession and their consequences. In one of the film’s first scenes, Wilson (a charmingly befuddled yet self-important Steve Coogan) receives a blow job from a hooker in a van in the back of the club where he’s hosting his first Factory night; his wife responds by having sex with a random dude in the club bathroom. It’s played for laughs, but this behavior certainly isn’t glorified: When the Happy Mondays blow through 200,000 pounds’ worth of recording money to feed Shaun Ryder‘s massive drug addiction, it helps lead to the end of the label. The suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis — perhaps the ultimate, most horrible display of self-indulgence — ends the film’s first act with morbid finality.

Still, the film’s more comedy than tragedy. A self-professed “serious journalist” somehow lacking a hardened reporter’s cynicism, Wilson’s optimism for his label and its bands is a joy, as is the music those bands create. Outside of New Order, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Manchester scene, but it’s hard to deny the excitement of seeing even a recreation of Joy Division’s early performances, much less the landmark Sex Pistols gig that opens the movie. If anything, “24 Hour Party People” is a bit too clever for its own good: While Wilson’s fourth wall-breaking speeches to the camera are successfully funny, the film seems too comfortable in the post-modern self-awareness of its narrative to fully capture the raw hedonistic energy of 1980s Manchester.

The quality of the cinematography is another story. Much of the first act is filmed with red filters, perhaps foreshadowing Curtis’ death and surely representing the hot-blooded exuberance of the label’s beginnings; by contrast, the final scene carries a blue tint. The dance scenes at the Hacienda, the Factory-owned club that would’ve been an enormous success had its patrons bought drinks instead of ecstasy pills (in one of the film’s own self-indulgent devices, this is explained via a shoehorned voice-over sequence), are shot in vivid flashes of neon as anonymous crowds twist and writhe. The bands are introduced with gritty, early MTV-style captions. It’s visually gripping stuff, and it helps make 24 Hour Party People an entertaining and, if not as affecting as it could be, sometimes sad document of one of rock’s pivotal moments.

Joy Division – “24 Hours”: mp3
New Order – “Ceremony”: mp3

Related: Deeper into Movies – Control (2007)
Related: Tony Wilson – 1950-2007


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