One of my vaguely resolution-ish plans for the New Year was to always take notes when I watch a film. I usually relegate my note-taking to Christian films whose theological arguments I expect to counter, or for film festivals wherein I expect to see many films in a brief period of time and am afraid of losing track of what transpired. But if I’m a film critic, by god, shouldn’t I keep a notepad and pen with me for every viewing? Shouldn’t I keep track of my thoughts and ideas about what I’m watching in the moment? Scribbling down words about the events portrayed on-screen every few minutes should help me organize my thoughts; it should make writing the review afterward a breeze.
Or that’s what I thought. Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is the first movie I watched in 2012 to which I’ve applied this grand experiment – and despite having a full page worth of information scratched down in short-hand, I still don’t know what to say about the movie. My wife and I have been on a Steve Coogan kick lately, working our way backward through his catalog starting from The Trip. I suppose part of what may be giving me pause here is that this final film in the Coogan/Winterbottom series (their first, chronologically) subverted my expectations. Oh, I had no issues whatsoever when Tony Wilson (Coogan) flies a hang-glider as part of a fluff news piece in 1976, then turns to the camera and explains that the scene is a metaphor that the audience will come to understand later in the movie. “I don’t want to spoil the film,” Wilson says, and provides a one-word hint: Icarus.
This breaking of the fourth wall hardly fazed me, having been prepped for such shenanigans by the duo’s delirious second effort Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. And of course, having viewed those prior (later) works, I knew the sort of humor that Coogan is apt to employ – making his serious reading of the line “It’s not what you think” when Wilson’s wife catches him with a prostitute – even more hysterical than it might be otherwise. What I had not prepared for, however, is how serious this movie would be about the Manchester music scene of the 1970s and ’80s, and about the rise and fall of Factory Records. Wilson himself notes later in the film that he is but a minor character in his own story: the movie is really about the music.
Indeed, 24 Hour Party People glorifies the progenitors of the punk aesthetic, early on choosing to cut to clips of major bands of the era performing; from The Stranglers, to the Jam, to Siouxsie and the Banshees. It all starts when Wilson and his wife attend a performance of a then-unknown outfit called the Sex Pistols. He claims that the show was a turning point in history, a musical revelation on par with Elvis shaking his hips on “The Ed Sullivan Show” – and this, despite the fact that there were only 42 people in the audience. Of course, the benefit of hindsight is that now we can see that other influential musicians were in attendance: most notably members of Joy Division and the Buzzcocks. But it’s hard to see how the show itself could be deemed influential or groundbreaking. If you’ll permit me to emulate your grandfather for a moment, it just sounds like noise. I think this is where the major failing of the film arises: it’s easy to win people over with Coogan’s charming arrogance or with flashy movie tricks like having actors break character or splashing electric fonts on the screen screaming information to the viewer, but the film’s alleged gods don’t inspire awe.
The bulk of the first half of the film surrounds the growing status of Joy Division in Manchester. There’s a segment where the band takes to a recording studio and comes away with one of their most famous tracks, “She’s Lost Control”. They listen to the song in the car immediately after receiving the demo and sit in stunned silence, knowing that what they are listening to is brilliant, historical. It’s a feeling I can relate to: I remember hearing Destroyer’s “Song for Acuarela” for the first time on a cold, streetlamp-lit night and feeling struck hard by the beauty of the song and the moment. But even though I can relate to the feeling, the movie doesn’t make me take the leap with regard to Joy Division’s song. I understand that the song is well-respected, but the movie doesn’t have the chops to make this viewer’s jaw hang open in sublime ecstasy in the way that is expected.
Later in the film, as Joy Division’s fame skyrockets and they’ve lined up a tour in the United States, lead singer Ian Curtis – spoiler alert! – commits suicide. Knowing his fate does have a tendency of making his songs sound that much weightier, as the movie rightly points out. However, the film doesn’t capture that feeling: his death comes suddenly and with surprisingly little emotional punch. We don’t get to know the film version of Curtis well enough to feel shock, if we are unfamiliar with the artist, or pangs of sad remembrance if we are. His death just sort of happens and then everybody moves past it. Perhaps this poor handling of such a huge event can be waved away by referring to Wilson’s words from before: the movie is not about any one person, but about the music. It’s not about Curtis, or the Sex Pistols, or New Order, or Sean Ryder – it’s about the music. But I don’t know if I can buy that, either; the music falls by the wayside as the movie progresses, the plot favoring the double-helix of business with Factory Records. Wilson’s club, The Hacienda, gains popularity exponentially (due largely to easy access to drugs) while revenue declines; New Order sell the number one single in the country, yet all of their earnings go to the massive debt of the club.
The trajectory of business is an interesting concept and it pays off well in the end with a reveal that, if you’ve been paying attention, should not come as a surprise. Coogan does provide some very funny moments, and the choice on the part of Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (who also did Tristram Shandy) to allow Wilson to step out of the action in order to do things like point out actual musicians playing background characters… that’s inventive and fun. But there’s no emotional heft to the story, it all remains very matter-of-fact. This is what happened, this is the way it happened, this scene was cut out of the film but might be included on the DVD extras. That’s okay, to some degree, because the movie remains gently humorous throughout.
But 24 Hour Party People is about the thrill of a new wave of artists in Manchester. Maybe the rigors of the music business is the sun melting Icarus’ wings, but if that’s the case then we need to see the laborious undertaking that went into building the wings, the certainty and majesty that comes with flying high. Seeing a boy plummet from the sky, sure, it’s dramatically gripping, but it doesn’t overpower you as much as knowing the back-story would. The music of the era is Wilson’s wings. I can see them, but they fail to register as anything more than tools for the plot to me. Ian Curtis fails to register as anything more than a tool for the plot. In my estimation, Winterbottom started with a compelling topic, but then… he lost control.