24 Hour Party People Review
There's a telling scene early on in 24 Hour Party People when Lindsey (Shirley Harrison) remarks of Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) that "he doesn't care what [people] say as long as they talk about him". One gets the impression, before listening to his wonderful commentary that the real Tony Wilson would think the same of this particular film. After all, it may not offer the perfect recollection of the events that shaped factory records or, indeed, the man himself, but the fact that he's been immortalised on-screen in his own lifetime is sure to offer its pleasures.
It's important to realise that Wilson is 24 Hour Party People's primary focus; whilst Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays figure large in its narrative, this is never the stories of those bands. This may be frustrating to fans of 'Digital', say or 'Blue Monday' or 'Wrote For Luck', what it allows is a much broader canvass: A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column and John The Postman are also allowed time in the spotlight, as is Manchester as a whole. Which prompts the question: Why make a dramatic recreation of events between 1976 (The Sex Pistols play Manchester Free Hall) and 1993 (the closing of the Hacienda) when a documentary would suffice, especially when considering that the majority of the main players are still alive? Certainly, the opportunity is there as the events that bookend 24 Hour Party People, namely punk and Britpop have been well documented in DOA, The Filth And The Fury and Live Forever, whereas only Carole Morley's The Alcohol Years has approached the Manchester scene of the time, yet only tells part of the story. That said, fictional pieces such as Derek Jarman's Jubilee and Julien Temple's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (which take on punk) or Luc Besson's Subway and Slava Tsurkerman's Liquid Sky (which approach new wave) often contain more truths or reveal more essences in a far more rewarding, and rewatchable, manner. As Tony Wilson puts it in his commentary, 24 Hour Party People may contain some "damn lies", but it also reveals some "profound truths".
With this broader canvass in place, director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cotteril Boyce approach their tale with a mixture of reverence and irreverence. On the one hand, many of the characters are approached in a pitch perfect manner (Sean Harris' Ian Curtis and Paddy Considine's Rob Gretton, Joy Division's lead singer and manager respectively, are two of the more noticeable stand outs) and there is a remarkable attention to detail, even if it is often only alluded to or shoved into the background (Curtis was listening to Iggy Pop's 'The Idiot' before he committed suicide, the sleeve of which can be seen in a blink-and-you-miss-it fashion.) On the other hand, we are treated to a direct to the camera narration by Coogan, including the wonderful line "I'm being post-modern...before it was fashionable", and the often incongruous way in which scenes follow each other; for example, an unccredited cameo by Christopher Eccleston as a homeless man spouting the philosophies of Boethius leads into the arrival of Happy Mondays' "vibes" provider Bez courtesy of a UFO. Moreover, the decision to shoot on DV enhances both of these elements. The rawness it allows for creates a closeness to its subject, as well as making these sudden shifts more acceptable. As it's noted amongst the welter of supplementary material, 24 Hour Party People took on an improvisatory approach, and no doubt the use of digital as opposed to celluloid helped matters immeasurably.
All of which would result in very little, and indeed risk trivialising it's subject, if Coogan's performance wasn't strong enough. Thankfully, any doubts cast by The Wind In The Willows and The Parole Officer (and his lacklustre performance in each) soon evaporate as he literally becomes Tony Wilson. Of course, he's had the experience of Alan Partridge who was quite blatantly fashioned on Wilson, and many of the characters traits remain. It's arguable as to whether the film would survive with a purely Wilson-Wilson, so to speak, inasmuch as the two hour running time would seem a little long, so Coogan's own inputs are unquestionably welcome. Interestingly, Winterbottom and Cotteril Boyce approach Wilson as they do the rest of the film. He is often an admirable character who reveals a lot of love and remarkable self-belief (the real Wilson has since stolen some of the dialogue and in typical myth making mode claimed them as his own), yet also endures a huge amount of piss-taking and can be faintly embarrassing (we are treated on three separate occasions to the sight of him dancing). The strongest praise that Coogan gets appears during an interview with journalist Jon Ronson on the supplementary material: "Now I really like Tony Wilson, because I see the Tony Wilson as portrayed by Steve Coogan."
Coogan's appearance is also integral to 24 Hour Party People's most surprising achievement, namely that it manages to convey an extremely recent era without seeming in the slightest bit embarrassing or false. The contribution of Cotteril Boyce's screenplay cannot be underestimated, but it is the shrewdness of Winterbottom's decision to cast television actors and performers that makes the true difference. That particular medium's ability to dramatise or reference current events is far more pronounced that cinema's as can be evinced in the works of Alan Clarke and Jimmy McGovern or those instances where a particular piece has been banned (The War Game) or almost rescheduled (Kay Mellor's recent Gifted) owing to it's timely nature. As such, the presence of Peter Kay, for example, or Ralf Little is almost reassuring. Even the likes of Eccleston or John Simm are as well known for their television work as they are for their cinematic efforts. In fact, the only actor who has worked exclusively in big-screen pieces is Paddy Considine, although these films (A Room For Romeo Brass, Last Resort) often have more in common with their small screen counterparts. Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any imbalance between these actors who are primarily comedic and those who favour dramatic. That said, it is more often than not the case that current British comedy has an overtly melancholic edge to it (Marion and Geoff, The Office), a quality that 24 Hour Party People inherently shares. It should also be noted that the film, despite its cast, never seems like a made-for-television piece, however the use of DV and Winterbottom's eye for detail are more than able to control that, and of course, the director also has the experience of grander pieces such as his two Thomas Hardy adaptations Jude and The Claim as well as smaller pieces With Or Without You and Butterfly Kiss. In fact, it wouldn't be overstating the case to point out that 24 Hour Party People is Winterbottom's finest film to date, an achievement that places it alongside Croupier, Sexy Beast and A Room For Romeo Brass as a potential future British classic.
Picture and Sound
Benefiting from an anamorphic transfer direct from the digital source, 24 Hour Party People looks absolutely stunning on disc. Whilst there are no technical flaws to speak of, it is worth noting that any scratches and/or blemishes are entirely intentional.
Sound wise, the results are happily similar, a DD5.1 mix allowing for a full appreciation of both Cotteril Boyce's wonderful dialogue and the numerous classics that grace the film's soundtrack.
The wealth of extras available fit easily into two categories: on the one hand we are offered the typical supplementary material of a filmmakers commentary, a featurette that contains on-set interviews, 24 deleted scenes, an accompanying music video and the original theatrical trailer; on the other hand, we find a collection of pieces designed to give a fuller flavour of the era which 24 Hour Party People recreates. The latter pieces are by far the more enticing, though that's not to say the other material is without worth.
The commentary by Steve Coogan and producer Andrew Eaton makes for a fine listen, combining anecdotes and reminisces of both the making of the film and Manchester in general. This is entirely the right approach, as Coogan points out, the voice-over narrative effectively analyses the film for you, teasing out its intricacies. The other pieces aren't overly essential, although the featurette does allow for some input from director Winterbottom. Sadly, he couldn't be coerced into recording a commentary for the deleted scenes and the lack of context or explanation for their exclusion is frustrating. That said the footage of Tony Wilson at a football match remains essential viewing.
The extras that prove most rewatchable, however, are those that fall into the latter category, in particular a commentary by Tony Wilson himself. It's a smart move, and a technique that was used to similar effect on the DVD of Andrew Dominik's Chopper, as well as a brave one. Luckily for the discs makers, Wilson actually likes the film (although he does alternate between calling it "fabulous" and "a piece of shit") and is highly adept at pointing out what he feels are the flaws as well as the factual inaccuracies. Of course, the fact that he served as consultant for the film no doubt aided his appearance, yet this never prevents him from being candid, not to mention frequently hilarious (in typical Tony Wilson half-intentional, half-unintentional style). It's also worth listening to the commentary just to compare Coogan's Wilson with the real McCoy; look away at any point, and it's confusing as to which is doing the speaking.
Wilson also appears on an hour-plus interview with Peter Saville. Alongside Grand Central (who designed the credit sequence and the DVD sleeve - which, incidentally, gets its own Factory catalogue number), Saville was integral to the look of Factory, designing all of the early posters and, more famously, the sleeves for Joy Division and New Order releases. It is these and many more that are discussed by the two men, allowing for a full appreciation of his work, especially considering that he is given short shrift in the film itself.
Saville returns for the "Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches" feature which consists of interviews with numerous luminaries from the Manchester scene (accessed via an interactive map). Again, this fills in any gaps missing in 24 Hour Party People and by interviewing journalists (Jon Ronson) and record producers (Arthur Baker) alongside the more recognisable musical faces (Shaun Ryder, Peter Hook) is able to cover a wealth of detail.
There's a similar mixture and similar result for the group commentary that appears on the second disc. Relegating the images from the film to a small corner, this is less scene specific than the other two efforts and soon digresses into general discussions on the Hacienda, or Joy Division's early days. Peter Hook appears once again and somewhat takes control of proceedings, although this is no bad thing as the verbal bantering proves just as entertaining as Tony Wilson's talk piece.