24 Hour Party People (18)

Industrial. Light. And magic
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There are many reasons why you might be disappointed by 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's rambling history of Manchester indie label Factory Records. You might feel it fails to give a sense of Factory's early austere mystique, of how its original punk inspiration led to the cod-metaphysical severity of Joy Division's LP sleeves. You might feel it offers too glib an essay in pop sociology, giving only a sketchy background to the birth of Mancunian rave culture. Or you might be a fan of some third-division Factory act wondering why Stockholm Monsters or Quando Quango didn't get a look in.

Otherwise, 24 Hour Party People is a more than creditable contribution to that largely discredited form, the pop history movie. The last major example of the genre was Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine, a glam-rock roman-à-clef with an underlying thesis about male sexual identity and mascara. Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce have a more modest agenda – there are no high-flown theories here, except the ones offered by their hero and narrator, Factory founder Tony Wilson, who spouts copiously about William Morris, the double-helix structure of pop history, and the origins of broccoli. Instead, we're simply offered a celebratory account, a whirlwind of facts and the odd brazen half-truth.

The film makes only a cursory attempt to link Factory to contemporary affairs – there's newsreel footage of the National Front and the rubbish collectors' strike, but none of the facile parallel-making that went into the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury. Instead, Manchester is seen as a strange cultural microclimate in which the germ of post-punk culture somehow happened to flourish. The unlikely catalyst for this phenomenon (at least, in his own eyes) is a Granada TV presenter and self-styled latterday Situationist-turned-entrepreneur, making and finally breaking his music empire in a flurry of quixotic business decisions – and all the time holding down his day job. The film's great running gag has Wilson playing hipster mogul by night while by day presenting silly-season news items, or introducing game show Wheel of Fortune, or incongruously spouting about Boethius's philosophy like a cross between Bob Holness and AJ Ayer.

The cast features a prodigal sprinkling of up-and-coming British actors and TV comics, not to mention cameos by those who were there. But ultimately, this is a one-man show, a lavish showcase for Steve Coogan as Wilson. After the sloppy, ingratiating The Parole Officer, this film ought to stand as Coogan's movie debut proper – here, he's really gone about it with conviction and wit. In one sense, Coogan's Wilson is a variation on the self-besotted bluster of his idiot TV host Alan Partridge (not that you could imagine Partridge lording it over the early Eighties Norwich funk scene). But Wilson is sharper and more knowing, happy to debunk himself as the over-educated smart arse savant. Coogan doesn't quite pull off the ineffable smarminess of Wilson's TV style, but gives him an endearing touch of his own customary little-boyishness: we see Wilson blinding journalists with semiotics, declaring Manchester the new Florence, sheepishly explaining to a hard-nosed record executive that the failing Factory is less a company than "an experiment in human nature". He's part picaresque buffoon, part self-reflexive unreliable narrator, part ego-tripping mythomaniac – rather like Malcolm McLaren in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. But where that film attempted to invent a grand plan after the event, this account of Factory is an engaging shrug, a plea of inspired incompetence in the face of chance, commemorating failures as much as successes (touchingly, the film ends with God interceding to predict a revival for neglected guitarist Vini Reilly).

Making Wilson the centre is sensible: you can care about one man's pop odyssey even if you know nothing about the other players. Familiar faces flash by – John Simm, Rob Bryden, John Thomson, Paddy Considine – without us quite knowing who they are. In one sense, this is smart casting, making faces register while conveying the story's madcap, overpopulated concentration. The disadvantage is that the only figures to really stick out are the most freakish – belligerent ogres like record producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) or Danny Cunningham's Quasimodo-like Shaun Ryder. Others are lost in the rush – Shirley Henderson as Wilson's first wife Lindsay comes across as a vivid, sane presence, but exits just as we're getting to know her. Lennie James, as Wilson's business partner Alan Erasmus, is there to do little more than light spliffs – awkward, since he's the film's only significant black character. The greatest pity is that we don't begin to know the doomed Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris). Onstage, he comes across more like a David Byrne-style nervy-boy poseur than a truly imposing pillar of intensity, and before you know it, he's already hanging in front of his TV, shoes dangling to the final shot of a Herzog film.

By conventional narrative standards, 24 Hour Party People is out-and-out confusion, a free-associative blur, but that's what makes it. The spirit hits you from the opening titles, a defiantly illegible wobble of amoeba lettering. Cinematographer Robby Müller, shooting digitally, creates a freestyle mix of looks, from desaturated Seventies beige to polarised purples and golds for Happy Mondays' E-fuelled prime. True to the title, the film really does have a party feel, something you wouldn't expect from the hitherto dour and pragmatic Winterbottom.

Letter writers to the NME were once fond of saying, "Ian Curtis died for you"; this film's more plausible message is "Tony Wilson went bankrupt for you". But 24 Hour Party People makes it clear that it only offers you one possible angle on a sprawling saga, and that any number of parallel films could have been made – the Martin Hannett story, the Lindsay Wilson story, even the Vini Reilly story. And you can't imagine any comparable record label lending itself to such a jovial glorification-cum-pillorying – although the Rough Trade movie, with John Sessions as Morrissey, is a thought to conjure with.