Friday, August 29, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - 24 Hour Party People (2002)

My plan here was to feature a trio of underappreciated films that perfectly capture the energy, excitement and unpredictability (and absurdity) of popular music. I thought about it for weeks and I admit, I was stumped. Pop-music movements are the hardest and most elusive to emulate in the time-consuming, costly film/video medium. Only live comedy is more difficult to realistically reimagine. Both require in-the-moment spontaneity and occur as a result of fleeting cultural moments in time.Try to capture that on film—I dare you.

[Note: Ondi Timoner managed nicely in her documentary, Dig!, because she filmed her rock-band subjects for seven years and spent God knows how many hours honing that down to a cohesive musical story for the time--the 90s--but that's for a future article.]

Director Michael Winterbottom must have thought about this problem long and hard when he made 24 Hour Party People, because he made damn sure the story of the rise and fall of Manchester's Factory Records was fresh, spontaneous and postmodern, like the scene it fictionally documents. How did he pull it off? I don't want to over-analyze all his methods here—it would DESTROY THE MOMENT. And that's the opposite of what this film accomplishes.

24 Hour Party People celebrates a time when the economic and social upheaval of 1970s western-European culture fostered the borderline-insane creativity of the prematurely embittered and underemployed youth of England's Northwest. The result was a new sound that you could dance to. Punk was the catalyst—the spark, if you will, that set it off. The result: controlled chaos, musical mayhem, applied chemistry—a new scene.

And now:

From the moment the titles appear, you know you're in good hands (or maybe you're afraid—this isn't for everyone, I admit). The bleached, chemical-vat colorization and purposefully distressed splendor of the title sequence is classic Experimental Film-School 101 from the era. And consequently the sequence was created by the design team behind the original Happy Mondays. More on the Mondays eventually.

I've never been to England and had to rely on Keith to fill me in on Factory Records and the Manchester scene. There's photographic proof that Keith roamed the streets of the Northeastern U.S. while wearing red skinny-legged jeans and a white blazer. Plus he spent a semester or two living in England in the early 80s, so he's my go-to source of British new-wave history. Meanwhile, I was just buying New Order records at Tower Records in California because of the pretty, pretty packaging and hypnotic qualities of the songs. I didn't know the story behind the innovative album design, or New Order, or anything of relevance as recreated in this film. So, I came to it as an appreciator of its audacity and wry deadpan wit. Keith was the one who clued me in to its authenticity. And when it's not authentic, the film playfully lets you know, several times over. Winterbottom's not a Wikipedia editor. He's a filmmaker.

Onward. 24 Hour Party People is about music but its narrator is a fan and supporter, not a musician. This is Tony Wilson, played with wry panache by Steve Coogan. Wilson was a local newscaster on Granada Television who attended the now-legendary 1976 Sex Pistols Manchester gig, with an audience of around 40 locals who were inspired to form Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, The Buzzcocks, and so on and so forth. (Legend, truth—whatever—"How many people were at the Last Supper?" asks Coogan/Wilson, proving less is more.)

One of many times Coogan as Wilson breaks the fourth wall to address us personally

Wilson visualized a rise of amateur misfits who could potentially shake up the bombastic guitar solos and stagnant sameness of the era's bloated music industry. Here was kinetic movement of a different sort. He started featuring new bands and artists such as Iggy Pop , Patti Smith, The Clash, The Jam, and Siouxsie and the Banshees on his television show, "And So It Goes." He then opened a club where he booked Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and his own management project (poked fun at throughout), A Certain Ratio.

All of this was very exciting. And Coogan makes a fabulous and improvisational host to the era, placing his hands in church-steeple fashion while pontificating about artistic genius throughout the ages. The guy intellectualizes everything, reminding everyone he has a Cambridge degree ("I never did that," insists the real Tony Wilson on the DVD commentary), and deserves better news assignments than interviewing midget elephant keepers and octogenarian canal builders. These re-created (and somewhat fictionalized) news segments are interspersed throughout and are the perfect contrast to the absurdity of "real life" media alongside underground culture, which is, of course, just as absurd in its own way. Anyone who has straddled the musical and working-stiff worlds simultaneously will appreciate the contrast. Also used: actual footage from the era, cut into recreated scenes, and the weathering of the new footage, so it fits the media look of its era.

Where does absurdity spring? I'd say wherever trouble lives. And Manchester youth had troubles. Major unemployment, a bleak non-future—they might as well have picked up guitars and strummed the blues. The cast of characters are true characters, from Joy Division and Factory co-founder, Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine--an eerily spot-on performance according to those who know), music producer and self-proclaimed genius, Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis—you know him as Gollum), and the intense and talented band, Joy Division, who would go on as New Order after the tragic suicide of front man, Ian Curtis.

Wilson and Gretton (Considine) negotiate a blood oath at the local pub

Winterbottom doesn't frame it pretty—just keeps it real and "in the moment"

The brilliant Serkis playing the brilliant Hannett

The live shows and recording-studio scenes are hyper-realistic, albeit with fourth-wall breaking asides, fictionalized timelines, and the occasional cameo from actual scenesters of the era. Joy Division's actual instruments were used in this scene of the recording of their first album. The actors playing musicians do an A+ job walking, talking and playing like budding musicians who are figuring out what they're doing as they go.

John Simm as Bernard Sumner

Peter Hook's bass

Ralf Little as Peter Hook

Howard Devoto as Howard Devoto.

Sean Harris as Ian Curtis is intensely mesmerizing. His live-music scenes are like being in an drunken, sweaty, but reverent audience, watching fresh live music unfold. That is a near-impossible task for a filmmaker—kudos. Note the electrician's tape on the mic stand. The little details add up to so much authenticity.

This is John the postman (Dave Gorman). Every basement-level scene has a super-fan like John the postman. At least they used to.

This ragtag group forms the Factory label, with its die-cut record sleeves and artful design schemes, opens a club—The Hacienda—and proceeds to drive themselves into economic ruin. The signing of The Happy Mondays, whose front man, Shaun Ryder, truly believes in the gospel of sex, drugs, rock & roll, hastens the decline. But the mood never sours. Coogan's narration is dry and light, as if looking into the deep past from a place of Zen wisdom. Money, fame, success—all ephemeral. What matters is the art. Scenes of mayhem, drug-addled confusion, violence, and baleful business decisions are played deadpan. To Wilson, the music, and the place it came from matter. This makes him an endearing buffoon and heroic anti-hero. It's such a strange and wonderful combination and reflects the process of the creation of pop music, which uses poetic, as well as analytic and observational regions of the brain. And, as I mentioned before, you can dance to it.

Split-screen portrays the packaging design alongside its product (in this case the huge single, Blue Monday)

Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) in the streets of Manchester

It wouldn't be much of an cult film without a vision of God, would it?

Camaraderie at the Factory

The punk ethos shines through the grit and gray skies of Manchester. The film is a love letter to Manchester. Coogan says so.

Manchester as seen on high

An interesting aside—the Hacienda, purportedly the birthplace of acid house and rave, abruptly closed in 1997 and was meant to reopen once financing was secured. It never was, but when making the film, Winterbottom had the club recreated exactly to specs and filmed the "last night" closing party. Locals played the crowd and simply partied during the entire shoot. So you can't go to The Hacienda (it was torn down for condos—the story of modern cities), but this last hurrah looks and feels like the real thing. And apparently at the time, it was.

Trailer with dumb U.S. narration overriding Coogan's idiosyncratic narration.

The DVD has commentary from the late Tony Wilson, who points out the untrue bits, including the gold records hanging on the Factory wall. "We would never have gold records on our walls," he lectures, miffed. Punk, forever. A second track has commentary by Steve Coogan and producer, Andrew Eaton. Michael Winterbottom prefers to remain silent, so that you may absorb and enjoy. It's like trying to explain music...

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