When it’s on: Saturday, 11 April (12.25 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
I’ve watched a few films over the years but I have never been in one. The closest I got was in the early 2000s. I was working at a university in Manchester and one day a film crew arrived holding auditions for extras in a production that would be shot locally. Along with a colleague, I decided to go along and found the film required people to be revellers in a mocked up Hacienda, the legendary Manchester nightclub. Despite my claim that I’d been to the real life Hacienda I didn’t hear from them again, a result I think of pushing 30 at the time, not to mention the fact I can’t really dance. At least I got to see the film, a retelling of the musical life of one Anthony H Wilson that is 24 Hour Party People.
The title comes from one of the earliest hits by the Happy Mondays and is also the name of Wilson’s biographical account of the period, from which the film is a loose adaptation. It helps that I love much of the music churned out by Factory Records, Wilson’s label. Factory’s willingness to give its artists free expression was legendary, leading to some real messes that were nevertheless released, along with the sublime Joy Division/New Order, the label’s one real spark of sublimity. The Mondays were something else entirely. Shambolic and loose fitting, they were the unlikeliest band imaginable, virtually incapable of avoiding trouble and occasionally putting out records that were like nothing I’d ever heard. I am playing one of their albums whilst typing these words and can’t really decide why I like it as much as I do.
In 24 Hour Party People, Wilson is played by Steve Coogan. He looks nothing like the Granada TV presenter cum would-be mogul, but his impersonation is flawless, getting across Wilson’s blend of pretentiousness and musical rapture perfectly, portraying him as a more solidly Mancunian Alan Partridge. Wilson breaks the fourth wall all the time, stepping away from the action to narrate his own story direct to the audience, at one stage advising us we’re entering the story’s second act when he doesn’t think we can grasp it for ourselves. As a real life figure, I never engaged with Wilson all that much, feeling he was essentially up himself, and I still think that’s true, but what the film really suggests is a dreamer, turning up to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, attended by forty people, and having an epiphany, seeing the band’s attitude as the future of rock music. That the Sex Pistols didn’t become as big as they might have isn’t the point, he argues; it’s all in the posturing, the anger, the willingness to just get on stage and have a go, a complete antidote to the saccharine chart hits of the time. It’s a philosophy he develops, first by booking bands for a night at the Russell Club in Moss Side and later creating his own label to produce their records. His aim is to showcase Manchester bands, both good and bad, and success or failure isn’t what matters so much as enjoying the ride and sharing the love.
Soon enough, he’s signed Joy Division, or at least written a contract in his own blood to seal the deal. It turns out to be the perfect group for Factory, capable of producing music that reflects the despair and desperation of existence allied with strange, minimal soundscapes, all teased out by the production values of Martin Hannett. As played by Andy Serkis, Hannett is an experimental producer who’ll do things like walk up a hill and attempt to record silence. Whilst Wilson describes him as a genius, he’s hard work, demanding and meticulous in his effort to get the sound just right. Sean Harris, for me one of the best screen actors of his generation, portrays the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, as a tortured soul destined for suicide, but also capable of having fun. I prefer his take on Curtis to the character played by Sam Riley in Control, which honed in on in his personal life more to try and depict his misery as brought on by illness, an extra marital affair and struggling to cope with being a father. The other band members include John Simm and Ralf Little and both, in their limited screen time, get their characters across flawlessly.
Following Curtis’s death, the action moves to the early eighties when Wilson opened the Hacienda, which from the start is depicted as an eternal drain on Factory’s resources, the last word in artistic hubris. Wilson doesn’t care because the club looks good and mirrors his vision as the place the city deserves, but even when it becomes successful it loses money because its clients take Ecstasy rather than visit the bar. By the end, the dealers have taken over and guns talk loudest outside and ultimately inside, which adds levels of unwanted controversy.
In the meantime, Factory takes on the Happy Mondays, led by Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham), a ramshackle collective that Wilson insists is creative gold. He sees Ryder as the new W.B. Yeats, whilst the singer subsists on endless narcotics and is clearly out of control. As the label struggles on towards its own doom, the Mondays play at being a band, fail to record any meaningful music and play a significant role in ruining their own paymasters. All this is watched on with something approaching horror by Wilson’s ‘business’ partners, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) and Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine), the latter a particular delight as his soft spoken veneer gradually gives way to violence when it all collapses around him. Factory’s philosophy is both undermined and defined by the final piece in the jigsaw, designer Peter Saville (Enzo Cilenti), who produces great artwork that Wilson loves, but always too late or at insane cost levels. His signature moment comes when he designs a record sleeve for New Order’s 12″ single Blue Monday, which has holes cut into the sleeve to represent a floppy disc. It’s so expensive to produce that the only saving grace is Wilson’s argument that no one will buy it; Blue Monday goes on to become the bestselling 12″ of all time.
That’s one of the many true, though from a business perspective almost unbelievable, stories that are replayed in the film. But there’s also fantasy, as in the scene where Wilson’s wife, Lindsey (Shirley Henderson) screws Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) in revenge for his own indiscretions. As the episode ends with Wilson getting his car keys from the very toilet cubicle in which they’re shagging, the camera cuts to the real Devoto, who claims he has no recollection of this incident ever taking place. Wilson justifies the story by quoting John Ford, arguing when legend becomes fact, print the legend.
24 Hour Party People features a string of guest appearances from British, mainly northern, actors, including Peter Kaye, John Thompson, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, the latter shining very briefly as a philosophy spouting street beggar. It’s directed by Michael Winterbottom, who often filmed using a handheld camera, shifting in and out of focus to reflect the near chaos taking place on the screen. It only settles down when it cuts to the vignettes of Wilson working for Granada, usually on location and covering some banal event, the sort of ‘And finally’ news broadcast that finds him discussing working the Rochdale Ship Canal with its oldest operator, a man who can barely speak. Wilson can barely contain his boredom during these moments, almost unable to juxtapose internally between the day job and his efforts to shape Manchester as an artistically vibrant city that deserves to be on the map. It’s all headed for failure, of course it is, but what failure. It’s a great film.
24 Hour Party People: ****
PS. A bit of quiet time for the site now as I’m away for a week, in fact by the time this piece is published I’ll be on my way home. Normal service to be resumed shortly.