(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
"Tony Wilson's a wanker!"
British readers of a certain age are of course now immediately laughing at the above reference and nodding their heads; for you see, Tony Wilson is a legendary figure from the UK's underground music scene, mostly in the 1980s and '90s, who was never an artist himself but kind of a suit and kind of a journalist at the same time, a guy who would trumpet a lot of bands on television and then produce and sell all their records once the cameras were turned off. And the real reason that this particular catchphrase has become so ubiquitous in England is because of Wilson's ponderous prose and grandiose statements about the various projects he's been involved with over the years; but then, damn if a lot of it doesn't turn out to be correct down the line, and Wilson proven kind of a genius just as often as he's proven a wanker.
When, for example, Wilson goes on and on about being one of only 40 people in the audience at the Sex Pistols' very first Manchester show in 1976, and how profound and epiphanous a moment it was for that city's music scene, even going so far as to remind people that "only a dozen were in attendance at the Last Supper, and look at how important a gig that turned out to be," the obvious reaction of course is to roll ones eyes and shrug; but then as he further correctly points out, among those 40 in attendance were the founders of Factory Records, the eventual members of Joy Division, New Order, the Buzzcocks, and Happy Mondays, not to mention Martin Hannett, the legendary music engineer who would produce them all. So you know, maybe that 40-person Sex Pistols show really was as important to Manchester's eventual music scene as the Last Supper was to Christianity. Maybe sometimes it really doesn't matter how many people actually attend a seminal event, or how much money it makes, in order for it to be seminal in the first place.
This is in fact the overarching and much-welcome message given throughout the mind-blowingly great 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, a partly fictionalized and partly historic look at those formative years of Manchester's music scene, a time that produced not only the bands mentioned but also the Smiths, Dead Can Dance, 808 State, the Stone Roses and more, almost all of it centered in one way or another at either Wilson's Factory Records (co-owned with others, including producer Hannett and Alan Erasmus) or their physical danceclub, the Hacienda, which almost everyone agrees was where both techno music and raves were globally born. If there is one thing that is pounded home about all this over and over throughout this movie, it's this -- that all of these bands, all of these projects, all of these spaces, are always and continually worth celebrating and championing, even if sometimes you only have two damn people in attendance and only one of them buy the album afterwards. Sometimes the only thing that matters is that someone with smarts, passion and money will stand behind you, even if he is a bit of a wanker most of the time, because at least it's enough to get you to the next show or recording the next album.
And really, if you're a fan and a believer in the underground arts, is there any better or more inspiring of a message to hear? That's what led millions of sullen high-school kids in the '80s like myself to eventually find and become obsessed with the various bands Factory was producing back then, no matter what little corner of the world we were located (in my case through the excellent Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis' Delmar Loop, almost the only record store in the entire region in the '80s that carried brand-new punk albums from Europe), and especially the exquisite Joy Division, which along with the Smiths were the veritable poster children for over-educated alienated suburban teens in America (mostly without these bands even realizing -- don't forget, this was years and years before the Web and MySpace).
And indeed, as the movie is careful to point out (with the input of many people who were actually around at the time, including a large amount of help from Wilson himself), Joy Division really was the center of the Manchester scene at the time; maybe not the most popular band or the best-selling one, but definitely the most influential and that the other bands in the scene most looked to for cues. When Joy Division finally caught on in the early '80s as to what a huge fan base they had in America, and finally decided to put the resources together for their first American tour (a move that most agreed would finally secure them their first top-10 album), people on both sides of the Atlantic cheered; when lead singer Ian Curtis killed himself the night before the tour was to start, something legitimately died in the Manchester community at the same time, with Wilson (as portrayed by comedian Steve Coogan) rightly pointing out in the movie that if this were an American story, this is where the movie would probably stop, one of many, many moments when the characters break the "fourth wall" during the film, as per the wishes of director Michael Winterbottom (creator of such other cutting-edge films as Welcome to Sarajevo, A Cock and Bull Story, and the notoriously sexually explicit 9 Songs).
But that's the interesting thing about Factory, is that the '80s is only one half of their infamous history; that on top of being the instigator of the dark post-punk scene that eventually inspired goth music, industrial music and more, ten years later they happened to be the creators of the bright, shiny, happy, Ecstasy-fueled rave dance scene as well, the one championed by such outrageous acts as Happy Mondays and its out-of-control lead singer Shaun Ryder, the movement that made stars out of DJs for the first time in history and revived the freakin' peace sign, for God's sake. It's one of the most fascinating things about Wilson and the organization, I think, is that they were able to mutate and evolve so organically, simply by sticking around and keeping their ears close to the ground, simply by being fans of great music and constantly on the hunt for more of it.
In fact, this I think is the greatest thing of all about 24 Hour Party People, even though admittedly I'm a bit biased because I'm attempting to do the same thing with CCLaP; that it celebrates the act of believing in artists, in championing them, of standing behind them and mercilessly attempting to convince others why they should stand behind them too. Every scene throughout this movie, at every turn and through every bleak spot, no matter what awful things complete strangers have to say about him, Wilson always has a kind word for the artists around him in his life, always takes a moment to compliment a poster that a brilliant visual artist made for a show...which, you know, he didn't get done until a couple of days after the show, but it's a brilliant poster anyway, and good for him. And ultimately, the movie does a wickedly funny job of showing why Factory finally fell apart for good, after falling apart a couple of times during its history as well; because ultimately you're always making a hard go of it when you choose to base a business around the underground arts, with it really being a miracle for one to even stay open and afloat for a few years to begin with after all the drugs and dysfunction are added in.
As we're reminded over and over with the Factory story, and especially the deft way its highlights are portrayed here, it's important for the Tony Wilsons of the world to exist, so very important; that sometimes they're the only single audience member at the club during your show, and not only that, but act afterwards like it was a full crowd, will buy you drinks the rest of the night, will remind you that "hey, there were only six people at Kitty Hawk the day the Wright brothers flew their airplane." Sometimes artists need the always-optimistic semi-wankerous ponderings of the world's Wilsons, because it's the only thing that keeps them going, the only thing keeping them from hanging up the entire thing right there at the club that night. Sure, that artist may take a shot at you with a pistol a couple of years later in a heroin-fueled rage, but that's what you choose to take on when you choose to be an administrator within the underground arts. And I for one would have it no other way.
Out of 10:
Best viewed: While dancing around your apartment, doing your best "Bez" imitation from your old undergraduate days, and cracking "Madchester" in-jokes only your old college buddies would get. Nice jacket!
Next on my queue list: To Live and Die in LA, the overlooked William Friedkin classic crooked-cop noir from 1985, which was also one of William Petersen's (CSI) first star-making roles.