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24 Hour Party People is one of the best movies about music ever made

24 Hour Party People is widely considered an essential document of Manchester’s music scene and the UK club and rave scene. I would go further and say it’s one of the best movies about music ever made. It’s just a great film full stop. Its wild, exhilarating energy and its transcendent passion for a city, its people and its music are unmatched on the big screen.

“Its wild, infectious energy and its unbridled passion for a city, its people and its music are unmatched on the big screen”

Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film covers the revolutionary epoch between the punk and rave eras, from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, when Manchester unleashed one quintessential band after another – from Joy Division and the Smiths to the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays – and became one of the most influential musical and cultural capitals in the world. “Manchester became the centre of the universe,” says Tony Wilson, the film’s protagonist. “Suddenly everyone wanted to be from Manchester.”

More specifically, the film is a docudrama account of the rise and disastrous fall of anarchic indie label and collective Factory Records; and a biopic of its charismatic, visionary, outlandishly egotistical impresario Wilson, who was also a well-known TV presenter. Factory would be legendary if its output was limited only to postpunk heroes Joy Division and New Order. But Wilson and his Factory cohorts also happened to found and operate the legendary Haçienda club, made worldwide stars of seminal indie-dance band the Happy Mondays, and midwifed the birth of the UK rave scene.

Any one of these bands or movements would make for a fascinating film. 24 Hour Party People is wonderful in the way it brings it all together, drawing a line between punk, new wave and rave through the careening roller-coaster story of Wilson, brilliantly and hilariously played by Steve Coogan.

Roughly speaking, the first half tells the story of Wilson’s dealings with Joy Division, culminating in lead singer Ian Curtis’s tragic suicide in 1980; the second half is about the Happy Mondays, the Haçienda and their part in the “Madchester” rave explosion. Other than being labelmates and sharing a producer, Martin Hannett, whose genius is instrumental to the Factory story, the two bands didn’t have much in common. The dark, ultracool postpunk of the former and the unhinged psychedelic dance-rock of the latter might seem at odds.

“The ‘Manchester Sound’ was not a genre or an era so much as an attitude”

But, as the film makes clear, the “Manchester Sound” was not a genre or a style so much as an attitude. That attitude is a product of the city’s postindustrial decay, its gloomy weather and, especially, the character of its people: their rebellious spirit, their nasally musical accents, their dry-as-a-bone sardonic humour and their eternal contempt for London and its ways. More than anything, 24 Hour Party People is a tribute to that attitude.

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The best thing about the film is the way it plays hardly anything straight. The tone is established in the absurd first scene, in which Wilson crashes a hang glider on TV to the strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. In a way it’s a satire of music biopics, one long pisstake, and that’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of punk and of Factory Records, which was a messy, turbulent “experiment in human nature.”

Coogan’s manic performance as Wilson embodies this chaos. He often breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the audience, even as the story continues around him, ironically commenting on the action and explaining things with grandiose references to classical literature and postmodern critical theory. It’s not always clear how much of this is an accurate portrayal of Wilson (who died of complications from cancer in 2007) and how much is Coogan simply playing himself and going off on crazed improv musings.

But the film intentionally blurs the boundaries between fact and whimsical fiction. Rambling conversations about the origins of broccoli or who exactly managed the Beatles are featured as much as dialogue that drives the story along. Bizarre interludes, such as a duck herding sheep or the Mondays’ Shaun and Paul Ryder feeding rat poison to thousands of pigeons, are as important to the story as the music. So are hallucinatory encounters with UFOs and God – suggesting that alien and/or divine forces helped shape the Manchester scene.

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Somehow all this makes 24 Hour Party People feel more authentic and compelling than a conventional biopic – especially since real documentary footage of Manchester’s music scene is skillfully cut with the cheeky fictionalised stuff. (The rapid-fire editing is superb.) And many real-life figures in the scene, including Paul Ryder, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, the Stone Roses’ Mani and Haçienda DJ Mark Pickering, appear the film, often playing random punters or drug dealers.

Compare this approach with Control, Anton Corbijn’s 2007 biopic of Ian Curtis. It’s a beautiful film, but its sombre, black-and-white, sad-boy approach is exactly what you’d expect from the story of this troubled poet who broke a million hearts when he hung himself. In 24 Hour Party People, when we first meet Curtis, he’s drunk in a pub and comically threatening Wilson – basically being a normal young bloke from Manchester, which is no doubt what he was apart from his immense talent.

This casual approach often extends to the music too. New Order’s Blue Monday, Factory’s biggest hit and one of the most beloved and recognisable dance tracks of all time, appears only as a subdued, beatless ballad, offhandedly sung at a rehearsal by John Simm, the actor who plays Bernard Sumner.

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But despite or because of all the skewed, oddball stuff, 24 Hour Party People is still a very touching and emotional film. The acting is sensational across the board. Andy Serkis, famous as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is so good as the psychotic genius Hannett. And though it intentionally defies expectations, it’s still supremely exciting when it comes to the music. You’ll want to get up and dance in front of your TV during scenes such as the Sex Pistols’ legendary first gig in Manchester; Joy Division’s performance of Digital at an early Factory club night; and the fateful moment when the Happy Mondays’ Bez introduces MDMA to the Manchester scene during a rocking studio session.

The passages involving the Haçienda, which is practically a character in the film, are especially rousing. Documentary footage of roof-raising ecstasy-fuelled nights at the club’s peak are interwoven with spot-on recreations. Classics like A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray, Moby’s Go and Paul Oakenfold and Andrew Weatherall’s remix of the Mondays’ Hallelujah really thump on the soundtrack during what are some of the best club scenes in any film.

24 Hour Party People also makes clear how important the Haçienda was to the global music and club industry”

24 Hour Party People really shows how important the Haçienda was to the global music and club industry – not only in its crucial role in popularizing American house music and DJ culture in Europe, but as a space in itself. It was one of the first clubs to feature postmodern design – its raw interiors and the yellow-and-black industrial safety stripes on its steel columns were considered ugly and alienating at first, but are now iconic.

Wilson felt that design was all-important in human affairs, and the boldness and majesty of the club’s space and what it said about the people and the city was, to him, part of its function. Nowadays every club from Berghain to Output operates by these principles. And the Factory crew didn’t invent the idea of inclusiveness and casual openness – people of all walks of life partying through the night in jeans and sneakers to underground music in transformed urban spaces – but the rave revolution they kicked off was vital in spreading it round the world.

Thus Tony Wilson’s commitment to radical change and living life and doing business without concern for society’s rules has become a permanent influence on anyone who cares about dance music. The way this chaotic, beautifully batshit film presents that history as both a heroic struggle and a random accident, while being so moving and entertaining along the way, makes it something special indeed.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.