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Dreams Never End

Crammed with pop ephemera and apocrypha, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People filters the mad sprawl of a musical Valhalla (Manchester, circa punk to rave) through the mystique of a local label (Factory Records) and the mythomanic antics of one man. Tony Wilson, the Svengali in question, might contest that assessment. "This is not a film about me," declares this most unreliable of narrators (played by Steve Coogan) in one of many to-camera asides. "I am a minor character in my own story." It's an emblematic rhetorical flourish for a motormouthed wiseacre who's rarely encountered a pair of contradictions he couldn't comfortably straddle: the opportunist with zero business sense, the provincial loyalist forever affecting worldly airs, the anarcho-situationist too bourgeois to give up his day job, the minor celebrity equally synonymous in his hometown with tacky television and cool music.

Bombastic analogies and tortuous metaphors tripping off his tongue in an aggrandizing deadpan, Coogan's Wilson at one point links the movie's credo to John Ford's: Print the legend. 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. The Manchester creation myth is thrillingly re-enacted: While the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten unleashes his corkscrew moves on the stage of the Free Trade Hall (the film splices in original Super-8 footage), Wilson introduces the soon-to-be-famous members of the sparse, rapt audience—and goes on to repeatedly compare the event to the Last Supper. He's reborn as a new-music proselytizer, a calling he can conveniently fulfill as a regional TV personality, club-night promoter, and record label boss.

Spanning 1976 to 1992, 24 Hour Party People is bookended by Wilson's tragedy-scarred triumph, Joy Division, and his Ecstasy-stoked flameout, the Happy Mondays. (Instructively, the title comes from one of the Mondays' swaggering pharmacological nursery rhymes—light years removed from JD's own "Twenty Four Hours," which flatly announced, "Looked beyond the day in hand/There's nothing there at all.") Sean Harris, who plays Joy Division's messianic singer, Ian Curtis, has the mannerisms down, radiating hostile urgency at an early gig as he parts the crowd like it's the Red Sea. As the music kicks in—the distinctive concentric circles and hard angles, a cruel geometry of isolation and frustration—Curtis's eyes widen to glassy, haunted orbs, windmill limbs propelling him into an epileptic frenzy (in an uncanny mimicry of the grand mal seizures that plagued him offstage). These scenes assert the primacy of the visual: Joy Division guitarist (and later New Order singer) Bernard Sumner once said that the band took their cues from Curtis's flailings—his coiled spasms, in other words, were the rhythm section.

Zippy kindergarten postmodernism: Coogan in 24 Hour Party People
photo: United Artists
Zippy kindergarten postmodernism: Coogan in 24 Hour Party People

Details

24 Hour Party People
Directed by Michael
Winterbottom
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
United Artists
Opens August 9

Miike Mania!
August 8 through 22 at Anthology Film Archives

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Curtis's suicide is clumsily handled, but how could it not be in a film that necessarily reduces him to bit player (and is reluctant to let complexity dim his enigmatic glow)? Within a few minutes of screen time, he bitches about Bowie's "don't wanna stay alive when you're 25" hypocrisy, watches Werner Herzog's Stroszek, and hangs himself—his legs dangling with a conspicuous feeding bottle in the background. (It's an irksomely noncommittal portrait, especially next to the Curtis who emerges in his widow Deborah's biography Touching From a Distance, or even the one shipped to purgatory in playwright Marc Spitz's macabre, angry fan's valentine, I Wanna Be Adored.)

The film's brazen impatience allows little time for mourning. 24 Hour Party People might have been expected to fade after the demise of its star attraction, but Winterbottom actually relaxes as the narrative progresses, perhaps because there's less at stake. The '80s see New Order selling records but losing money, owing to deluxe Peter Saville packaging and Wilson's cash-hemorrhaging new club, the Hacienda, which remains largely empty until the advent of rave, "Madchester," and the dissolute hooligans Happy Mondays. (The city's non-Factory musical titans exist as shadow presences: The Fall's Mark E. Smith and the Stone Roses' Mani have cameos, and it's noted that Wilson passed on the Smiths.) The Mondays' convulsing dancer and maracas shaker, Bez (evidently hit with Curtis's rhythm stick), meets Neanderthal frontman Shaun Ryder in a scene that basically Photoshops Velvet Goldmine's UFO onto the sleeve of Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? Day-Glo pigments seep into Robby Muller's digital cinematography, up to this point a bleached study in sepia. The downward spiral is almost gleefully reported: The Mondays tuck into a smack-methadone-crack-marijuana buffet while recording in Barbados, and Wilson projects a casual bravado in the face of looming insolvency.

24 Hour Party People casts Wilson as the martyred idealist who could never sell out because he had "nothing to sell." There are hints of the man who once supposedly proclaimed Curtis's death the best thing that ever happened to him—he's shown ushering a journalist into the morgue, urging him to "take it all in." But mostly Wilson comes off as an agreeably pretentious blowhard, his TV stints providing comic digressions as he interviews midget zookeepers and fights his touching inability to ever dumb down his shtick (quoting Boethius while hosting Wheel of Fortune). The film's zippy kindergarten postmodernism, responsible for the tirelessly reflexive narration, extends to the inspired casting of popular Mancunian comedian Coogan, best known for his alter ego Alan Partridge, a windy TV presenter. Among the supporting cast, John Simm, as Bernard Sumner, cuts a sympathetic figure (notwithstanding an un-Barney-like obsession with being in tune), and Shirley Henderson, as Wilson's first wife, Lindsay, again proves herself a micro-miracle worker.

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