Monday, November 7, 2011

Movie – 24 Hour Party People (2002)

The movie 24 Hour Party People is a love letter from director Michael Winterbottom to the city of Manchester, England and the New Wave musical acts such as Joy Division/New Order and The Happy Mondays that came from there in the 1980s.  It features partial performances, some real and some re-created, of a number of Punk and New Wave songs.  The list of music credits at the end of the film seems to go on for minutes.  If you like music then you will probably like this film.

The movie is really a series of narratives tied around the device of using real life TV personality and founder of Factory Records Tony Wilson as the central figure.  It is not a story of his life, though.  As his character says in the movie, “I’m a minor player in my own life story.”  He is played by Manchester native Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder) in the movie.

Wilson is seen in three different ways in the film – as a character, as a TV presenter, and as a narrator of the movie.  An example of this is the opening scene of the film.  It shows Wilson (Coogan) talking directly to the camera, as part of his job as a TV personality.  He is going to be going hang-gliding and he is introducing the segment to his TV audience.  It then shows Wilson getting ready for it and doing it as we would normally see a character in a movie (i.e. not aware there is a camera there.)  Finally, after the hang-gliding sequence ends with him crashing, Wilson directly addresses the camera again, but this time as a narrator of the movie.  He tells you that the prior scene works on two levels.  It really happened (fun fact – they spliced in footage of the real Tony Wilson trying to hang-glide), but it also works symbolically for what we are going to see in the movie.  Wilson says, “You're going to see a lot more of that sort of thing in the picture. I don't want to say too much, don't want to spoil it. I'll just say one word: 'Icarus'.  If you get it, great. If you don't, that's fine too. [pause] But you should probably read more.”

The last line is an example of the dry humor that permeates the movie.  You could tell Coogan was allowed to adlib quite a bit in the film, too.  While there are a number of humorous moments in the movie, and while Coogan is best known for his humorous roles, I would not call this movie an out and out comedy.

In another funny sequence, Wilson got caught cheating by his wife so in the movie she gets revenge on him by having sex with a friend in a bathroom stall.  After seeing them, Wilson walks out and the camera focuses on the bathroom attendant.  He says directly to the camera, “I don’t remember this at all.”  Wilson’s narration then kicks in explaining that this is the real man who was just portrayed and that both he and Wilson’s wife want everyone to know that that event never happened.  Wilson then explains why it is in the movie by misquoting director John Ford, “When deciding whether to print the truth or print the legend, go with the legend.”

The movie starts in 1976 when the Sex Pistols first played a gig in Manchester and future members of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, and other musical acts were among the 42 people that saw it.  Also there was Wilson, and he decided to found a record company to get their music out to the world.  The movie then becomes the story of Factory Records over the years, their musical acts, the club that they opened, and the eventual closing of it in the 1990s.

I am old enough to be familiar with many of the Punk and New Wave songs used in the film.  My senior year of college I roomed with a huge Joy Division/New Order fan and he introduced me to their music.  If you are not old enough to have listened to this music then this film will be a good introduction to it.  You will probably recognize a couple of the songs because they have been remade in the years since they were first recorded.  An example is the band Orgy covering the New Order song Blue Monday in 1999.  There’s a great scene in the movie where we see New Order rising from the ashes of Joy Division to create this song.  For New Wave music fans this was no less an event than it was for rock fans when AC/DC rose from the ashes with Back in Black.

Also in the movie with Steve Coogan are Paddy Considine (In America) and Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter).  That’s an unrecognizable Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) as a sound engineer with a huge afro.  Keep an eye out for a quick appearance by a pre-Shaun of the Dead Simon Pegg as a journalist and a cameo by Kenny Baker (Star Wars) as a dwarf washing an elephant.  There are also cameos by some of the real people that the movie is about, but you’d probably have to be a huge fan of them to recognize them.

The biggest negative with the film is that a lot of it is shot in shakycam and several scenes are in extreme shakycam.  It is almost as if the worst scenes were the first ones shot and the cameraman got better at holding the camera steady as the film went on.  Another possibility is that perhaps the Director of Photography sometimes took the camera himself to film some scenes.  The opening credits are a little annoying, too, but those can be fast forwarded through.

Overall, if you like music then I definitely recommend this movie.  If you are a fan of New Wave music, or are curious to find out more about it, then that’s even better.  If you hate any kind of music except for the one type you listen to now, then you probably want to avoid this movie.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]



  1. I actually liked the shaky cam stuff because it played to a style of cinema verite that I was engaged by. It was as if I was in the party. I didn't like the U.S. DVD cover they put out. It's a total misrepresentation of that period.

  2. @thevoid99 - that cover is partially what kept me from seeing the film for so long, believe it or not. I got the wrong impression from it. It was only when I needed a film for the number 24 that I gave it a try and got a pleasant surprise. It's also why I used the British cover for this post, rather than the one I had been put off by.

    Shakycam does the exact opposite of that for me. It doesn't make me feel like I'm there; it reminds me there's a cameraman standing there trying to keep the actors framed in it while they play a scene. It completely removes me from the world of the film and reminds me that what I am watching is fake.

    Besides, we're biologically programmed to not notice the motion of our own heads when we do things like walk or dance. Try it. Look at an object across the room. Now get up, walk around, jump up and down - all while continuing to look at the object. It stays still, even though our heads are moving. A moving camera crosses up this biological hardwiring because our heads are not moving, but the frame is.