24 Hour Party Pooper

Wilson biopic a missed opportunity

After centuries of do-gooder browbeating, it turns out there is rest for the wicked after all. This peculiar salvation is called the biopic, and everyone gets to look good in them, even such rogues as Richard Nixon and Abbie Hoffman.

Of course, this iron law also works for the less notorious. Tony Wilson is one such lucky man, and his biopic is 24 Hour Party People. Shot in a raw, documentary style by the usually exquisite British director Michael Winterbottom, the film charts Wilson herding Manchester, England's always unruly, sometimes brilliant, punk and rave scenes.

While it's certainly no lie that the chief of Factory Records and the Hacienda Club helped bring the world some of the best pop music of the past 25 years—Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays—it's questionable why Winterbottom had to tell Wilson's story with cloying, Monty Pythonesque, nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor. The result looks more like the work of an annoying younger brother than the testimony of a revolutionary rocker.

A local TV news reporter in Manchester, Wilson (played by the mostly engaging comedian Steve Coogan) has a life-altering experience after witnessing a 1976 concert by a then-unknown band called the Sex Pistols. He convinces his station to televise one of the Pistols' shows, which soon has local punk groups flocking to him to manage them. He and his new friends go on to create the aforementioned label and club that forever changed the music industry and Manchester.

There's a reason 24 Hour Party People spins around Wilson's persona and his 24/7 glib dialogue on literature, religion and politics: the flick is based on his book of the same name, so it's his tone and portrayal of himself that the movie apes. Obviously, he's not going to appear as the pudgy, foul-mouthed, Falstaffian television personality that many accuse him of being. Instead, we get a kind of a rock & roll Hugh Grant, a stammering and befuddled subject who fits the flick's light docudrama air—but does a disservice to the actual story of Wilson and the Manchester scene.

Indeed, the story of Manchester from 1976 through the 1990s is loaded with pop-culture-tinged dramatic tension. A depressed ruin of a city found itself hosting one of the world's most creative punk scenes and then birthed a most influential party scene—only to have it all implode due to its fans' overwhelming appetites for drugs and violence. Now that's a movie! But 24 Hour Party Peopletosses it all off as a massive in-joke, complete with the stunt casting of Manchester rockers such as the Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto that merely renders the project as insincere as any attempt to link Anna Nicole Smith with entertainment.

That pisses off some folks who took part in the original scene. Manchester's Guardian newspaper interviewed New Order bassist Peter Hook, who took his ire straight to the source. Hook says he told Wilson, "The film ain't right, it's wrong. And (Wilson) said, 'you don't understand, it's the myth versus the reality.' It's bizarre."

Surprisingly, the soundtrack—usually a dull marketing tool—tells the real Manchester story with far more finesse. Starting with one of the songs that launched Wilson's interest in punk—the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K."—it reaches for the best music of that period. Some of it is the high, austere drama of Joy Division songs "Transmission" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Other segments are the alternately warm and icy confessionals of New Order tunes "Blue Monday" and "Temptation."

Also welcome are songs from Manchester's rave years, including playful, mysterious tracks such as "Otis" by the Durutti Column and "Voodoo Ray" by A Guy Called Gerald. The soundtrack finds many of these songs still sounding fresh and hip, a testament to their continuing influence. Why couldn't the Wilson biopic follow suit?

24 Hour Party People was directed by Michael Winterbottom; produced by Andrew Eaton; written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book by Tony Wilson; and stars Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson and Andy Serkis. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

 
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