If you weren’t “there,” or so goes the conventional wisdom about turning points in the history of popular culture, there’s just no way to convey what it was like to be “there.” “There” could be Woodstock, or the last time Buddy Holly performed live, or, yes, the first time the Sex Pistols took to the stage and confused an audience of about forty people—about half of whom would go on to become some of the most influential figures in modern popular music.
That said, many people have gone on record to record what it was like to be there, and question many of its dogmas. One of my favorite examples is Lester Bangs’s hilarious and trenchant critical writings about popular music, in which he did everything from burst the Elvis bubble to bring Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to the ears of many who’d never heard a single note of jazz. In a way, if you weren’t there, it was even better: you could stand apart from the hype and listen to someone who was similarly skeptical of it, and determine what really mattered.
24 Hour Party People is a movie version of that sort of documentarianism, and it freely melds mythology and fact. It puts us in Manchester, England, from 1977 onwards, right when England seemed on the verge of imploding and popular music in that country (and later everywhere else) was undergoing a convulsive change. And, again, if you weren’t there, it’s hard to separate the truth from the hype, but Party People tries instead to do something even trickier: evoke a mood, a feeling of being there watching things unfold instead of hearing about them in the past tense. It succeeds. The movie has limitless energy and a boundless glee abo ut its time and place, and the joy is infectious.
< i>Party People tells its story through the eyes of the acerbic Tony Wilson, founder of Manchester’s influential Factory Records label. Before the scene explodes, he’s doing inane prime-time TV gigs, but once the Sex Pistols get up on stage, his calling is set: His job, he tells himself, is to bring this new music to the people. The tenor for the era is set beautifully when Wilson’s DJ buddy looks at a wall adorned with posters of Pink Floyd and David Bowie, mutters, “They must go!” and tears them down with swipes of the fist.
Wilson runs a regional music show out of Manchester, where he openly defies the overarching distaste for punk by airing artists like Iggy Pop and Siouxsie and the Banshees. “This is the most important music since Elvis walked into Sun Studios at Memphis,” he enthuses at one point, and cuts to the Sex Pistols doing “Anarchy in the U.K.” He’s getting tired of just putting bands on TV, though, and decides the next step is to open his own club and force people to come out and experience the music for themselves.
Tony’s sketched in such particular, idiosyncratic terms it’s impossible not to like him, even if he is pompous and often insufferable. He comments constantly to the camera directly, or in voice-over: the way the movie is constructed, this peculiar conceit works, instead of becoming distracting. When they scope out the possible digs for the “venue” (as Wilson calls it), his girlfriend wrinkles her nose: “Dog shite everywhere!” His response: “It’s urban! It’s exactly the place we should be.” His biggest worry is not that he’s being forced to split the tab 60-40 with the owner, but that the owner is also named Tony: “Can you not see how that’s a potential problem? Who’s Tony #1 and who’s Tony #2?” He’s desperate to be taken seriously as part of the scene, convinced he’s part of history in the making, even when everyone around him regards him with a mixture of bemusement and contempt.
The “Factory” night, as he labels it, becomes a nexus for some of the scene’s best and most important bands—and one of the many things the movie makes clear that sometimes an influential band wasn’t always a very good one. Tony’s determined to get some of the best of the bunch to record for him directly: one of the first signees is Joy Division, and he cheerfully slashes open his thumb to write out the contract in blood right in front of them. The group is suitably nonplussed, especially when they bring in a deranged engineer who demands the drummer play “faster, but slower,” and moves the drumkit to the roof of the studio. For this they’re paying fifty quid an hour?
Other bands join the Factory line: A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, many names that still ring bells to fans of music that seeks to do more than simply entertain. But there are problems: When Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, kills himself, Tony’s response is shock, and then annoyance: “What a stupid bloody bugger,” he grouses: how’ s he going to get the band to tour America now? Thoughts of Ian as a h uman being only come after thoughts of Ian as an employee. Eventually Tony’s sense of untouchability get the better of him, and there are later scenes that are both funny and pathetic when he is clowning at everyone he meets behind a wall of drugs while his little empire rots away from under him.
The movie has an interesting, offhand way of establishing character. After the first Factory night, Tony discovers the clubowner doesn’t intend to pay him in cash, but hookers. His wife catches him in the act. Later, Tony walks into a bathroom stall and finds her having sex with another man (“I only had a blowjob; that’s full penetration there,” he observes spitefully). This is very funny, of course, and the conclusion to the scene, involving what is ostensibly a witness to the whole thing, had me laughing out loud for minutes on end. Tony is also desperate to speak well of the people he takes under his wing, even when other people think they’re wastes of skin (like the cheery, druggy and utterly brainless lead singer for another of Factory’s bands, the Happy Mondays). But he has a kind of integrity, as in a scene near the end when he meticulously explains to another record company executive that he has arranged things in a way that makes it impossible for him to sell out his label-mates.
Party People’s director, Michael Winterbottom, does some of the same curious things with media and one’s sense of vérité that The Manson Family did, although to completely different effect, of course. It mixes hand-held 16 and 35mm footage, scratchy 8mm clips, video, professional-level concert footage, hand-drawn animation and titles and everything else they can think of. The whole thing feels like it was made in the Seventies and Eighties; it evokes its time period on multiple levels. There was never a time when I felt I was looking at a recreation of anything, but more like a time capsule someone had cracked open full of lost footage from the era, even when what we’re seeing clearly isn’t real. It’s uncanny. Some of the footage is of course not faked, but there’s so much attention to detail, the difference between the real thing and the fakery disappears, and we take in the movie as a whole. I also liked the little touches thrown in by the scene’s fringe personalities, like a postman who storms the stage at the end of every concert and commandeers the mike.
People who were in fact there will probably dispute specific events as depicted in the film, and I think that is part of the idea: When you’re dealing with nostalgia, what happened isn’t as important as how you remember it. 24 Hour Party People is about subjective nostalgia—if this is what it felt like to be there at the time, in a way it’s a good thing that we’re here, now, and we can separate the good from the bad on our own. Pity about Tony, though: he thought the good times were never going to end.
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