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Manchester 1976: Cambridge educated Tony Wilson, Granada TV presenter, is at a Sex Pistols gig. Totally inspired by this pivotal moment in music history, he and his friends set up a record label, Factory Records, signing first Joy Division (who go on to become New Order) then James and the Happy Mondays, who all become seminal artists of their time. What ensues is a tale of music, sex, drugs, larger-than-life characters, and the birth of one of the most famous dance clubs in the world, The Hacienda - a mecca for clubbers as famous as the likes of Studio 54. Graphically depicting the music and dance heritage of Manchester from the late 70's to the early 90's, this comedy documents the vibrancy that made Mad-chester the place in the world that you would most like to be. Written by
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Like any other movie about rock music, documentary or not, '24 Hour Party People' packs its fair share of inside material and self-indulgent frivolity.
Due to a crammed timeframe of 20 years (essentially one big juggling act of people, bands and events) connecting all the dots required multiple viewings, even if I had certain prior knowledge of the Manchester music scene in the late '70s, '80s and the early '90s. Making matters still more difficult is the variety of extremely thick accents - to a point of entire sections of dialogue or monologue occasionally flying by with only a single word or two actually registering with me. While it added to film's authenticity, that got to be more than a bit annoying after a while. Where's that closed captioned TV set when you desperately need it?
As far as the treatment of the subjects themselves goes, the movie does an adequate job. I mean, when it gets right down to it, the only structure such a film can more-or-less follow is the basic listing of a series of real events (and in this particular case most of them already well documented). Naturally, as such it doesn't allow for a whole lot of substantial artistic freedom so the director employs many little asides, winks and nudges by our narrator Tony Wilson (often through the 'fourth wall') as well as visual tricks and, obviously, music to make this different from, say, something you might see on VH1's 'Behind the Music'. In addition to being one of the major driving forces behind the whole scene, Tony also held a full-time job at Granada TV all throughout this period, which the movie uses skillfully for comic relief.
Predictably (not that I'm complaining), things like: Ian Curtis' suicide, the opening of the Haçienda club, ascent and demise of Factory Records, Shaun Ryder's famously out-of-control & self destructive shenanigans, all receive special treatment. Through Steve Coogan's excellent performance, Tony Wilson, our guide through this zoo, comes off as a pretty fascinating fellow. Director Michael Winterbottom makes a wise choice in leaving out many details from his private life in favour of the music itself and the people who created it. Wilson's second wife and kids, for example, are barely mentioned - with a cheeky remark about Tony being a minor character in his own life story as an explanation for the lack of on-screen time devoted to them.
In the end, whether or not you enjoy '24 Hour Party People' will largely, if not entirely, depend on your level of familiarity or appreciation of the bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Happy Mondays and to a lesser extent of their punk inspirations and predecessors like The Stranglers, The Jam, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, Siouxsie and the Banshees, who are also depicted in the film.
Personally, even though I was always aware of the British new wave, most of its music & 'shtick' pretty much slipped under my radar so I recently started discovering it retroactively. Therefore, it was a blast to see a well-done, interesting film celebrating that era in popular music. These blokes created & performed honest, full-blooded, passionate tunes, which is the single most important thing that comes through the movie.
P.S: The Smiths, another famous and influential Manchester band are notably absent from much of the film. This is probably due to the fact that back in 1983 both Tony and New Order producer/manager Rob Gretton agreed their demo was crap, so instead to Factory they went to Rough Trade Records based in London. They're mentioned briefly at the end, though, when Tony speaks to God himself who among other things tells him: "it's a pity you didn't sign The Smiths". :) Brilliant!
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