24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

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

15 thoughts on “24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

    • ありがとうございます!ファクトリー・レコードは長続きできなっかたけどイギリスの音楽に深い影響を受けました。ジョイ・ディヴィやニュー・オーダーやOMDやハッピー・マンデーズや。。。全てのバンドの音楽は今でも素晴らしいです。

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Glad you enjoyed it. My main issue with the film is it writes The Stone Roses out of the Hacienda story, for some reason. But overall it’s stood the test of time.

    Welcome to Manchester! I walked past the Hacienda (an apartment block now) just last night and see it every day on my tram journey into the city centre. Belting. There’s still a highly active music scene here, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I myself was a bit surprised, given how influential they have been, that The Stone Roses were glossed over. Guess they chose to focus on the Happy Mondays’ far more entertaining meltdown. Print the legend, and all that.

      Are the tenants there are like the ones who live on Abbey Road in that they constantly have to deal with annoying tourists? It’s pretty cool that you get to see a site where music history was made every single day. I totally look forward to seeing what you guys come up with next.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never got into the music that grew out of this scene as much as some others, but I’ve heard a few of these stories. Would be interesting to see them played out on screen, even mixed with the urban myths and legends. It also annoys me when films purport to be based on true stories but contain so much of that myth/legend stuff that they can’t be relied on. If the movie straight up admits that it’s mixed truth and legend together, though, that’s a different matter.

    I knew Joy Division had an extremely depressing and tragic history, but I didn’t know about Ian Curtis hanging himself after watching a Werner Herzog film. I haven’t seen Stroszek, but I have seen Woyzeck, which I think Herzog made around the same time. I can see that movie doing some weird things to your mind if you’re in a certain state.

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    • That’s definitely what ticked me off about every other biographical feature last year (i.e. The Favourite, Green Book, Vice, BlacKkKlansman, etc.); they tried to have their cake and eat it, presenting fictional events alongside the truth and claiming it’s 100% real. You gotta love a film that’s upfront about mixing in legends with truth. Surprisingly, it’s difficult to tell, given just how crazy things got, what’s real and what isn’t – even after reading up about it. We’re talking about people who took enough drugs to kill a normal person at least ten times over.

      Most of what I read about Ian Curtis suggested he wasn’t exactly a great person (especially not to his wife), but there’s no denying the man had some severe issues. Medical science in the 1970s just didn’t understand how to effectively treat epilepsy, and the medicine he took to alleviate his condition only exacerbated his depression. He was even convinced people only showed up to his gigs to watch him have an episode, so it’s pretty much impossible not to feel sympathy for him. Interestingly, his bandmates apparently remember him as something of a goof, and this film even shows him and his band covering Louie Louie, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what their fare usually entailed. It goes to show that there is much more to these people than what even the legends say.

      As for Herzog, the only film I’ve seen of his is Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is quite the grim journey down a river of insanity. It was good, and I can see the influence it had on Apocalypse Now, to be sure. And yes, those two films were made about two years apart. If Aguirre was any indication, I can see them as films you need to be in a right frame of mind before watching or else they will lose you.

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      • Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. That’s part of why I also really get pissed off when period piece sort of movies that look like they’d be good end up screwing around with history to produce something full of half-truths without admitting that they’ve done that (“based on a true story” is a great bit of weasel language, probably first thought up by a lawyer.) The actually true story always seems to be more interesting than whatever some writers decades later come up with. I know the truth can sometimes be lost, but it seems like this movie’s approach to that problem is much more honest, which I can appreciate.

        I really liked Aguirre when I saw it. I’d definitely need to be in a certain mood to watch it again, though. Woyzeck is pretty bizarre, but also dark in that way Aguirre is. I’ve only seen a few Werner Herzog movies, but the guy seems to have something to say without getting all preachy about it, which takes some skill. I’ve also read a few of the stories about Herzog’s relationship with Klaus Kinski, an actor who played the leads in Aguirre, Woyzeck, and a bunch of his other movies in the 70s and 80s and who seems to have been actually mentally unbalanced. Considering the fact that these guys filmed on location in some extremely harsh environments, I guess you’d have to be a bit crazy to do so.

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        • Mr. Herzog was definitely crazy in the endearing sense of the term considering what he and his crew did to make these films. If what I’ve heard of his canon is any indication, what I feel allows him to outshine other directors with a message for his audience is that he has proven not to be a one-trick pony. Aguirre was extremely grim, yet apparently, Fitzcarraldo is supposed to be exceedingly idealistic, making it the exact opposite as far as tone is concerned.

          Conversely, I have to say the defining flaw of modern-day auteurs is that they rarely leave their comfort zone. I think it’s because they want to establish a unique style that can’t be compared to any of their predecessors, but because the styles they come up with invariably have so many facets, their fare tends to be equal parts tedious and predictable. It’s not terribly surprising in hindsight that Alex Garland’s follow-up to a film that takes a dim view on science and humanity (Ex Machina) is another film that takes a dim view on science and humanity (Annihilation). Similarly, Ari Aster ended up following up a film wherein a woman has a personal tragedy that causes her to fall on the ground crying her eyes out at one point (Hereditary) with another film wherein a woman has a personal tragedy that causes her to fall on the ground crying her eyes out at one point (Midsommar).

          Another point in Mr. Herzog’s favor is that he seems to handle set conflicts a lot better. He’d have to be a good negotiator to have worked with a loose cannon like Klaus Kinski. That guy was certifiably insane, and not in the endearing sense of the term – I mean insane in the sense that it’s kind of a miracle he didn’t become a serial killer. He certainly had the right psychological profile for it, having an antisocial personality disorder and zero impulse control. When filming Fitzcarraldo, the natives who were working as extras offered to kill Kinski for the director due to the his erratic behavior, though the latter ultimately refused.

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  3. I like the approach of this film, as you’ve described it. So many biopics are shoe-horned into a predictable pattern, but I like the idea of this one turning the traditional biopic on its head. Thanks for putting this on my radar – I wouldn’t have come across it otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, this is not a cookie-cutter biopic by any stretch. It’s stylish, amusing, and freely admits to presenting urban legends and rumors alongside the truth. It helps that the real-life story has so many twists and turns, that the inventions have nothing on reality.

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