Michael Winterbottom is the man. Next to the almighty Steven Soderbergh, he may be the best young director working. He creates the same sort of natural magic with his actors, and while he may be more of a Soderbergh-style journeyman than an official auteur – in the mode of Darren Aronofsky or the Andersons, Wes and P.T. – Winterbottom’s track record really could not be more impressive, or varied.
And his latest, the celebratory music docudrama “24 Hour Party People,” is actually fun to watch. The same certainly can’t be said of “Jude,” Welcome to Sarajevo or The Claim, though every one of those Winterbottom films was masterful. They were just all serious, stone bummers.
“24 Hour Party People” is simply a two-hour rave, an acidic, ecstatic trip through the not-too-distant past in a world called Manchester. Gangly TV reporter Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan, in one of the year’s most amazing performances) sees a new future open before him at a Sex Pistols gig in June 1976; in addition to Wilson, other people in the sparse crowd included members of the Clash, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. In the first of many “reality blurs,” Winterbottom seamlessly weaves in footage of the real event. The size of the crowd is in utter disproportion to the historic importance of the show; as Wilson dryly asks us, the audience, “How many people were at the Last Supper?”
In no time, Wilson and wife Lindsey (Shirley Henderson from “Topsy-Turvy”) have moved into a grungy nightclub to showcase many of the area’s hot young bands, and other punk/new wave heroes like the Jam, the Stranglers and Siouxsie & the Banshees. Next comes his own label, Factory Records; Wilson splits profits 50-50, gives total creative freedom and signs no contracts with his acts. The man is plainly a lunatic, but just as plainly a genius. While England is going down the shitter all around them, Wilson’s scene is just getting going.
Until Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s lead singer, hangs himself four days before the start of their first American tour. The year is 1980. Soonafter, Lindsey takes off on Tony for reasons of “bad energy.” Undeterred, Wilson opens a new club, called Fac 51, featuring local jazz musicians playing to an empty house. All looks grim, until the remaining members of Joy Division – now calling themselves New Order – have a hit with “Blue Monday”…and until the introduction of a little drug called Ecstasy. Rave culture is born, the DJ ascends to the throne, and for a brief moment Manchester is the center of the universe.
Or not. The band most sanctified by “24 Hour Party People” is Happy Mondays, who never made a dent in the States and whose music, on the evidence presented here, was nothing short of shite. (It’s odd that the Stone Roses, the best and most popular band of the late-‘80s Manchester scene, barely rate a mention; apparently Wilson overlooked them. But at one point Wilson is seen apologizing to no less than God for failing to sign the Smiths!)
Luckily, you hardly have to be a fan of this music to get heavily into Winterbottom’s psychedelic groove. His style may be a bit oblique and loose-jointed to ever make him a big player in Hollywood, but damn if he doesn’t know how to create a vibe, a manic, druggy energy that the screen can barely contain. Sadly, “24 Hour Party People” has the misfortune of being released by United Artists, who have turned out some great movies over the past year or so (Ghost World, CQ, No Man’s Land and The Claim) with no clue how to sell them. This one deserves a better fate.
So make a point of catching it in theatres for the full tripped-out effect. Light up, drink up and settle down, music geeks of all ages and colors. This is Cult Movie Central – and there’s no livelier tour guide than Michael Winterbottom.