24 Hour Party People (2002)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 April (12.25 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

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.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

When it’s on: Thursday, 1 January (4.25 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

As a child I was always more into Asterix than Tintin, the little bequiffed Belgian journalist as conceived by Hergé in 1929. The adventures of the Roman-smiting Gaul just wormed its way into my affections easier, perhaps I think in hindsight because of the creative names of his tribesmen – you’d trust a herbalist called Getafix, wouldn’t you? That said, all I wanted to do back then was draw my own cartoon strips, and the Tintin books were the ideal inspiration, with their clean lines, bright colours and panels that individually seemed to contain so many things happening at once. The dream ended as my painstaking efforts to produce some new comic book hero made me realise I could appreciate the form but not produce anything close to it, but my pleasure for the stories has lingered, and my wife is a massive Tintin fan. Several years ago, we sat through much of the animated series, enjoying the affection for the source material whilst missing Tintin in his natural book form. Conveying the character’s relentless sense of movement was difficult to do, but Hergé captured it magnificently.

French reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 compared Indiana Jones’s fast moving antics to those of Tintin, and it was through reading these that Spielberg first came across Hergé’s books and acquired the adaptation rights in short order. Then he sat on the project for twenty years, convinced it was nigh on impossible to do the character and books any justice via a live action movie. The particular problem was Snowy, Tintin’s dog, virtually impossible to replicate with a trained animal but accessible more and more thanks to advances in animation. Ultimately, he went to Weta Workshop in New Zealand, famous for its work on the Lord of the Rings films, and from there to the series’ director and creative force, Peter Jackson. After showing Spielberg what was possible by sending him a film of Jackson dressed up as Captain Haddock, performing alongside a fully animated Snowy, the pair decided to collaborate and develop Tintin using motion capture technology. The planned movie was conceived as a number of features, with Spielberg and Jackson alternating directorial roles, and the first of these became The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

As a director of many years and hits at the box office, with critical acclaim to match, helming an animated film must have been something of an unusual ‘first’ for Spielberg. Fortunately, it mainly works. Not content to simply make a cartoon, Tintin features many scenes where the animated form creates images that would otherwise be almost impossible, such as Haddock’s memories of his past-life as Sir Francis transforming the Saharan sandscape into the rolling ocean, his ship the Unicorn bobbing up and down the dunes/waves. It also serves the action sequences very well, injecting an urgency to moments that might have been limited by the restrictions of what would be possible in a live action film. The rendering is smooth and realistic; the characters all look great, those ‘dead eyed’ cartoon people from the earlier likes of The Polar Express now brought vividly to life whilst retaining enough artistic commonality with their Hergé originals to become every inch the books exploding into life.

Added to that, it’s a lot of fun. From the moment Tintin happens to purchase a model boat, the plot shifts happily from one fast-paced caper to the next, very rarely letting up and allowing itself to be dictated by the action rather than lengthy exposition from characters in conversation. It seems clear Tintin was made as a labour of love. Jackson was a fan from childhood, Spielberg from the moment his interest was piqued by those Indiana Jones reviews, and the results are a love letter to Hergé, the spirit of the books retained. I had no idea that Daniel Craig was playing Sakharine/Red Rackham until the credits mentioned it, so buried is he within the performance, but Jamie Bell makes for a fine Tintin, whilst frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis is in excellent form as a perpetually sozzled Haddock. The Thompson Twins are the comic relief, supplied by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The film’s writers, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish, ensure a heavyweight combination of talent loaded into the screenplay.

And yet, and yet in the end, it’s the animation that emerges as the film’s main weakness. One of the great charms of Raiders of the Lost Ark was that it all took place within a working world, a fully realised 1930s backdrop of Nazi villains and Indiana Jones suffering for his cause. That sweat on Harrison Ford’s face as he faced off with a king cobra – that was real sweat. The blood he let as a consequence of being pummelled during the fight to wrest the Ark from the Germans looked well earned. The grains of the desert dusted over everything – all real. In cinematic terms, if Tintin resembles anything then it’s those old Jones adventures, a combination of great acting, writing, direction and stuntcraft, with special effects dialled down and everything grounded in grimy authenticity. As much fun as it is, Tintin never quite captures this because it’s a cartoon. What you’re watching has been produced by a computer, actors doing everything they can to make it come to life but ultimately playing in front of green screens with the detail filled in by skilled engineers later.

There’s no escaping that reality, or lack thereof, and the result is a joyful confection from men who have obvious affection for the stories and give their all to it, but a confection all the same.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn: ***