To the Beat 

Music and mayhem: 24 Hour Party People.

Chronicling the music scene in Manchester, England, from the late '70s through the early '90s via the rise of Factory Records (home to Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays, among others) and its founder Tony Wilson, director Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People tosses the rule book with the same kind of gleeful anarchism that the punk scene it chronicles did.

The digital-video film frequently breaks the third wall by having characters speak directly to the audience, mixes documentary and fiction footage, uses a narrator who is outrageously unreliable, peppers scenes in which actors play real people with those same real people playing other roles, drops in lovably chintzy special effects, and gives birth to brief ad hoc music videos whenever a new band is introduced. It might be the only pop-music-based film I've ever seen in which I was more interested in form than content.

For the record, I'm a music fan for whom Joy Division has always equaled "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and not much else, for whom New Order is a band to be admired from afar, and for whom the Happy Mondays were dismissed from day one. Chances are most American viewers will be even less emotionally committed to this music, and while the film undoubtedly holds deeper interest for English audiences and Americans who dote on this particular scene, 24 Hour Party People is engaging enough to draw in pop fans not particularly interested in the glories of "Madchester."

Winterbottom's presentation of the Manchester scene's creation myth is one of the most thrilling stretches of film this year. The site is a 1976 Sex Pistols concert, their first appearance in Manchester. Winterbottom mixes actual Super-8 footage of the show with filmed sequences of his actors in the audience, creating the effect of both streams of footage sharing the same film space. As Johnny Rotten lurches and leers across the stage, the film's protagonist/narrator, local television reporter Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), sits with his wife Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) in the bleak, mostly empty room and tells the audience that they are witnessing history. There are only 42 people at the show ("What difference does that make?" he later asks a colleague at the TV station. "How many people were at the Last Supper?"), but they will be "inspired" to "perform wondrous deeds." Wilson points out members of the Buzzcocks, who were supposed to open the show but who had equipment issues, a group of young men in the back of the hall who would soon become Joy Division (and later New Order), and a rough-looking cat (Martin Hannett) who would go on to produce some of the scene's best music.

Soon, Wilson is broadcasting punk music on his own regional television show and opening a rock club called the Factory, in part so that he and his friends can advertise a "factory opening," thus reversing a local trend.

This first half of the film, which chronicles the creation of Factory Records and the early days of Joy Division, has great, gritty energy. Sean Harris is startling as Ian Curtis, the ill-fated lead singer of Joy Division. Performing onstage in an intense, coiled trance, Harris' body explodes in angular spasms, giving the impression that he may have been his own rhythm section, his physical cues making him as much a bandleader as James Brown. Some of these scenes are engrossing even for those that aren't huge Joy Division fans: a Factory Records stable live jam to "Louie, Louie" or the band crowding into a car with their manager and Wilson to drive around Manchester at night and listen to a tape of their just-recorded "She's Lost Control."

This section of the film ends rather abruptly with Curtis' suicide, which isn't dealt with in much detail at all. And soon, the film rockets into what Wilson tells the audience is its second act, which focuses on the "Manchester scene" of the early '90s, where Wilson's new club the Hacienda is, as he dubiously claims, where "everything came together: the music, the dancing, the drugs, the city it's the birth of rave culture, the moment when even the white man starts dancing."

The Hacienda scene is fueled by the trendy and short-lived sound of tepid white alt-funk like that of Wilson's latest discovery, the hooliganish Happy Mondays, but even more so by Ecstasy, the clientele's preference for which, at the exclusion of the club's cash bar, leads to the Hacienda's financial ruin.

"I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. I'm a minor character in my own story, which is about the music and the people who made it," Wilson announces. But this is false modesty. Coogan's Wilson, along with Winterbottom's visual and conceptual playfulness, drives the film along. Wilson is a contradictory figure, both visionary and "twat." He's a Charles Foster Kane-style impresario of the vanguard, making sure Factory Records uses no contracts by dramatically drawing up a contract to this effect, in his own blood. At the same time, he's too bourgeois to give up his job on local TV.

He's pretentious yelling at a reporter who questions the Nazi-associated name "Joy Division," "Haven't you ever heard of semiotics?" and peppering his monologues at his new job as host of the British version of Wheel Of Fortune with historical and literary allusions (which the show's producers then edit out before broadcast). He's deluded comparing all of his artists, most ridiculously the Mondays' Shaun Ryder, to Yeats. He's prone to outrageous claims and blanket assertions "Jazz musicians enjoy themselves far more than the people listening to them." And he's a witty ringleader for the film's chaotic madness: He flirts with Miss Britain by discussing his flirtation then explains to the audience that he was "postmodern before it was fashionable."

Wilson's demeanor that of a good-natured bullshitter who sincerely believes his own line and whose grand schemes are driven more by "an excess of civic pride" than by profit embodies the film's punk spirit. The film's pre-credit sequence shows TV-reporter Wilson on assignment to introduce viewers to the trendy new sport of hang gliding, Wilson pausing to alert the viewer to the "symbolism" of this introductory non sequitur, where he crashes into a hillside. "Think Icarus," Wilson says, "and if you don't know what that means, read more."

But 24 Hour Party People abjures the traditional trajectory of stormy downfall and the finding of a new peace in favor of an ending more loose and friendly. When Factory Records comes to an end, Wilson explains to the corporation that has come to buy out the company that it has no contracts and no back catalog, that "I protected myself from the dilemma of selling out by having nothing to sell." Then he goes up on the roof to have a drink with his friends, where he is visited by God, who tells him that he should have recorded the Smiths when he had the chance.

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