On June 4, 1976, a television presenter named Tony Wilson watched the Sex Pistols perform at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The audience for the pioneering punk band was decidedly small; fewer than fifty people attended. Nonetheless, many of these people would go on to have promising music careers of their own. To harness the energy of this new wave of music sweeping Manchester, Wilson founds a record label he dubs Factory Records, signing a promising collected called Joy Division as their first band.
The Sex Pistols’ appearance at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall could be compared to the release of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, in terms of influence. An observation commonly attributed to Brian Eno is that the album only sold around 30,000 copies, yet every single one of those buyers formed a band. Lou Reed’s band provided a sound that singlehandedly invented the concept of alternative rock. Similarly, despite fewer than fifty people being present for the Sex Pistols’ show, a significant portion of the attendees, Ian Curtis, Mark E. Smith, and Morrissey among them, would go on to form some of the most praised bands of their generation.
The show itself was booked by members of another recently-formed punk band known as the Buzzcocks. Amusingly, a journalist by the name of David Nolan suggested the Sex Pistols didn’t inspire their audience because they were expert musicians, but because the performance in question was so terrible, they felt they could do better. Given the do-it-yourself ethos of the punk rock movement and the post-punk genre that evolved alongside it, this development is strangely fitting.
From the moment it begins, it is clear that 24 Hour Party People is quite a bit different from your typical biographical feature. Although the film begins in 1976, Wilson breaks the fourth wall as soon as he is introduced. He is well aware of the twists and turns life has in store for him, and acts as a host of sorts for the events to follow. As a result, the film provides a decidedly postmodern experience. This isn’t even a particularly deep reading of the film – Wilson goes as far as describing himself as “being postmodern before it’s fashionable”. For those unfamiliar with the label, Wilson sums up its entire life with a single word: Icarus. Music experts know that the rise and abrupt fall of Factory Records is a cornerstone of rock history, and for those unaware, this one word tells them exactly what to expect.
What I find particularly admirable about this film is that it doesn’t even try to disguise the fact it’s a work of fiction inspired by true events. One of the more irritating aspects of biographical features is that it’s easy for audiences to accept studio notes intended to liven up the narrative as hard fact. Here, Wilson and company freely admit that many of the events depicted in this film draw inspiration from rumors and urban legends. Why depict things as they are when the legends are far more interesting? This leads to one memorable scene in which Buzzcocks member Howard Devoto is depicted copulating with Wilson’s first wife in a nightclub bathroom. The real Devoto, appearing as an extra, admits that “[he] definitely [doesn’t] remember this happening”. As a result, 24 Hour Party People is the kind of film that can give you a basic guideline as to what happened during the life of Factory Records while also providing you an incentive to read about these people yourself.
To produce Joy Division’s records, Wilson hires Martin Hannett. He is often referred to by those familiar with his work as a studio madman for his meticulous, if unorthodox methods. In his introductory scene, he is shown on a hilltop recording silence. During the recording sessions for Unknown Pleasures, he instructed drummer Stephen Morris to set up his kit on the roof and recorded his part long after everyone else had gone. He didn’t quite go as far as barging into Wilson’s apartment and shooting at him with blank cartridges, however. Instead, he settled for firing a gun into a phone with Joy Division manager Rob Gretton on the other side. In spite, or perhaps because, of his peculiarities, Hannett is considered one of the greatest record producers of all time.
Although 24 Hour Party People is primarily a comedy, it is not afraid to shy away from some of the darker aspects of its subject’s history. Joy Division was a band whose impact eclipsed their lifespan. Ian Curtis wasn’t a stable person in any sense of the term. He suffered from epilepsy in a time when medical science knew very little about the affliction and had severe depression. One concert in has him accosted by white supremacists invading their shows due to the fascistic name of their band, which causes him to have an especially violent episode. On the eve of their slated United States tour, he hangs himself after watching Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek. The comedic tone never completely dissipates from the narrative at any point, yet the moment in which Wilson visits the deceased’s next of kin and bids Curtis farewell is quite poignant. Following Ian Curtis’s death, New Order rises from the ashes of Joy Division, becoming Factory’s most successful act.
Ultimately, these good times are not to last. New Order could be seen as having fired the fatal bullet that killed Factory Records. Despite “Blue Monday” becoming the best-selling 12” single of all time, they lost money on every copy due to the sleeve’s elaborate design – the cost of which exceeded the price of a single. It also didn’t help matters when Wilson commissions New Order for a new studio album in Ibiza, which they fail to deliver on even after two years. However, the true harbingers of disaster were none other than the people who wrote the song that provides the very name of this film: Happy Mondays.
Wilson signed this promising band shortly after opening his successful nightclub, The Haçienda. After Factory Records loses money as a result of the “Blue Monday” fiasco, Wilson turns to Happy Mondays to deliver. After three successful albums, Wilson commissions Happy Mondays to record their fourth album in Barbados. Living up to the rock-star lifestyle, the band proceeds to completely blow the money on drugs. When all is said and done, vocalist Shaun Ryder holds the recordings for ransom, which Wilson retrieves for £50. Unfortunately, the band was so drugged out of their minds, they failed to write any lyrics for the album; all the tracks on the record are instrumentals. Although lyrics would be written for the final product, the album is a critical and commercial disaster, thus sounding the death knell for Factory Records.
All in all, the label was a failure in the long run, but it proved to be an admirable artistic experiment whose influence can be felt to this day. This is demonstrated when, realizing they’re about to be ruined, Factory Records has no choice but to sell their assets to London Records. However, it turns out what they had really didn’t amount to much. They didn’t sign any contracts with their bands; one of the most important policies the real Wilson stood by is that musicians were free to come and go as they please. In essence, Wilson is unable to sell out by virtue of having nothing to sell in the first place. Some thought him mad, but his place in the history books speaks for itself. It’s confirmed to Wilson himself when, in a somewhat Monty Python-like scene, God Himself shows up to congratulate him on a job well done. There’s a distinct possibility that this was a hallucination brought on by smoking marijuana, but who can say?
In the face of the countless biographical features that follow a distinct Hollywood formula, 24 Hour Party People is a breath of fresh air. It’s a humorous, highly original postmodern art piece that informs as much as it entertains. In most biographical features, you’re just waiting for the pieces to fall into place, but the highly experimental nature of Mr. Winterbottom’s narrative always keeps you guessing – even if you’re familiar with the history of Factory Records. There’s something very interesting about a film that freely admits to taking liberties with reality. Many of the utterly insane events that unfold in this film seem too outlandish to be true – and then you learn a little more than half of them really happened. The fabrications and the truths seem to intertwine until both are nigh unrecognizable.
Whether or not you fancy yourself a music fan, I could easily recommend watching 24 Hour Party People. In fact, if you’re not familiar with the Madchester music scene, it could serve as a decent crash course for the subject. Mr. Wilson’s experiment may not have lasted long in the grand scheme of things, but there is no questioning the sheer impact he and his associated talent had on modern music.
Final Score: 7/10