A true story of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, “24 Hour Party People” is a rough, gritty, often scabrously humorous tribute to a period when Manchester, England, was the epicenter of punk rock, and to a small group of people who tried to buck the London-centered, big-label system. A return to a looser, more intimate style of filming by the trio of director Michael Winterbottom, scripter Frank Cottrell Boyce and producer Andrew Eaton, after their widescreen Western “The Claim,” pic relies on a strong central performance by Brit TV comedian Steve Coogan, as the real-life TV presenter-cum-club owner Tony Wilson. However, with its semi-docu style, deliberately dirty look and gobs of late ’70s-to-early ’90s rock and clubbing music, film reps a considerable marketing challenge, even within the U.K., where it goes out wide April 5.
Winterbottom’s movies have always showed a strong sense of place and, just as “Wonderland” (1999) was the ultimate London pic, celebrating the city in all its rag-tag diversity, so “Party People” is an anthem to the individualistic pride of Mancunians. (Winterbottom, Cottrell Boyce, Eaton and Coogan all hail from the region.)
The flavor of the place comes over strongly in both the location work and Robby Muller’s hard, unforgiving DV lensing. A closing caption dedicates the pic to “all the people of Manchester, now and then.” More than an anthem to a city, however, “Party People” is a movie about an era — 1976-92, from the dawn of punk to the death of acid.
It’s also that era as viewed through the story of one man’s loony, doomed “experiment in human nature.” Wilson’s idea of setting up Factory Records, a company without any artist contracts, symbolizes the bubble-like leap of faith which briefly gave Manchester its spell in the spotlight.
Casting of Coogan, best known for his TV alter egos such as chat-show host Alan Partridge, is a clever fit to Cottrell Boyce’s loose script: Within a single scene, the actor can slip from being an audience confidant, through documentary narrator, to the character of Wilson himself. However, even Coogan fails to give much needed bounce to pic’s final third, as repetition and discursiveness set in.
The opening signals “Party People” isn’t going to be a drearily self-important study of the period a la “Velvet Goldmine.” In a fake clip from a 1976 TV documentary about hang-gliding, Coogan first appears as Wilson, in his day job as a reporter for Manchester-based Granada TV, before stepping out of character and telling the (movie) audience that what we’ve just seen is, of course, all “symbolic” — and the key word, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, is “Icarus.”
After retina-searing main titles, done in the style of a 16mm scratch-movie, pic proper starts with the key scene in Wilson’s life: June 4, 1976, when he was one of only 42 people in a Manchester hall for a gig by the then-little-known Sex Pistols. Fired up by the music, and at a time when national TV nets spurned punk, Wilson started plugging it on his local show, and with his friend, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James), started managing live gigs.
These early sequences are wonderfully entertaining — partly a showcase for Coogan’s inimitable shtick and partly a brilliant evocation of the real thing.
The use of DV here seems to be absolutely justified, with the resultant flat, brownish patina giving a convincing period feel and also blurring the lines between re-created and actual docu footage. In the club scenes, you can almost smell the sweat, taste the beer and feel your brain cells dying as bands like Joy Division crash their way into musical history.
Coogan’s witty persona keeps the pic accessible to a broader audience than just music fans of the period. After Wilson has set up his own label, Factory Records, and become heavily involved in the rock scene, the movie could easily have turned into a much darker drama, as Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) hangs himself. Real docu clips also remind the viewer how this was a period of social and industrial chaos in Blighty’s history, with frequent strikes and demonstrations.
As Joy Division mutates into the immensely popular New Order, and Wilson opens the Hacienda in 1982, the movie — and Coogan’s performance — hits its peak. The birth of DJ/rave culture is strikingly summed up by the thesp walking through the famous club, talking to camera, as clubbers dance in slo-mo behind him. It’s one of those shots whose cleverness only hits the viewer halfway, but is all the more effective for its apparent artlessness.
Unfortunately, this is where the movie, along with the main character, start to run off the rails. After a “Trainspotting”-style montage to demo Wilson’s drug abuse, pic loses its sense of momentum, wandering off into segs on drug dealers, edited in agitato style, and even strained bits of direct-to-camera humor by Coogan/Wilson.
Last 30 minutes are repetitive and in need of major tightening, though the re-staging of the Hacienda’s final night (during which Wilson, famously, invited everyone to loot the offices) ends the pic on an exhilarating note.
Though at one point Coogan/Wilson tells the camera, “I’m a minor character in my own story” and adds that the pic is really about the music and musicians, the opposite is true. Little knowledge of, and no special liking for, the music is necessary to enjoy “Party People,” thanks largely to Coogan’s playing, but also to the rich gallery of supporting turns.
Shirley Henderson (“Wonderland,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) is terrific as Wilson’s first wife, Lindsay, who looks like she just stepped out of a ’70s time machine. As Wilson’s business partner, Rob Gretton, Paddy Considine makes a strong impression, as, more colorfully, does Andy Serkis in the role of Martin Hannett, Wilson’s crazed, bear-like sound engineer.
Among many cameos by the real-life people, Wilson is also introduced, fleetingly, in a studio control room.
Mark Tildesley’s production design, re-creating the famous Hacienda in almost exact detail, and Natalie Ward and Stephen Noble’s costumes re both top drawer, as is make-up design by Jill Sweeney and Janita Doyle. As in, say, “This Is Spinal Tap,” there’s no sense of fakery in the pic’s look, even when it’s gently sending it up at the same time.