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Music Movie Mondays: “So why don’t you join in?” with 24-Hour Party People

June 21, 2010

Hello, readers. This is my first entry for a weekly series I’ll be doing here called Music Movie Mondays. Basically, I’ll be reviewing features and documentaries that focus on music. For those familiar with programming at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse – my resident city’s premier movie house – this will play something like the theater’s Music Monday series. In fact, I may review some of their offerings.

However, for those familiar with my blog Feminist Music Geek, this series will differentiate slightly from my work there. On my blog, I only cover artistic contributions by cis- and transgender women and girls, or mediated instances where they take focus. Here, I won’t be making that sort of distinction in the movies I choose to review. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be critical of issues of gender and sexuality, along with race, ethnicity, class, age, and ableism. My feminist media scholar hat is always on.

To set the tone, I selected Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People. I’ve chosen the 2002 biopic about Manchester’s Factory Records and its impresario Tony Wilson for several reasons. The most obvious one is that I like it. In terms of basic filmic pleasure, it ranks amongst my favorites. I could sit down and watch it any time. But why?

For one, it speaks to who I root for as a music fan. I’ve long been a champion of popular music’s underdogs. As a college radio deejay, I grew particularly fond of post-punk, a diverse subgenre formed in response to punk’s formal rigidity, as well as the freedom it provided for amateurs to get involved with the music industry. I also developed an understanding of how independent record labels functioned and got to know some of their employees as fellow music fans who worked for little to no money out of a belief in their artists. Thus 24-Hour Party People focuses on two interesting things I hadn’t seen much of in music biopics – an obscure historical period in popular music that begins after punk’s demise and before grunge’s meteoric rise and the infrastructure that supports (or at times undermines) it.

At the center of it all is Tony Wilson, a television personality who founds Factory Records and dubs himself a minor character in his own life story. There’s much I like about the late Wilson. For one, he’d be the first to typify himself as an intellectual wanker. He was also comfortable with failure, which I find quite liberating. He couldn’t turn a profit in any of his ventures, but it didn’t matter so long as recording careers and nightclubs were launched amidst the gray squalor of Manchester’s faded industrial glory. He didn’t quit his day job, in part because he couldn’t afford to, but mainly because he liked to work. Most importantly, he had a lot of opinions. This makes his commentary track on the DVD essential, as well as proves the accuracy of Steve Coogan’s outlandish performance.

24-Hour Party People asks a lot of its audience. This is most evident in its tone, which is decidedly self-referential. Much of the movie hinges on Wilson speaking directly to the camera. While some detractors may dismiss Wilson’s narration as self-indulgent mythologizing that stalls or distracts from the story he’s telling, it makes total sense for the character – a professional commentator – to enrich the story with references, asides, and expository information. Furthermore, he often proves himself an unreliable narrator by derailing storylines, overemphasizing minor details, admitting to embellishments or disseminating lies, or offering that there are multiple accounts and that his is but one.

It also assumes its audience is familiar with not only a footnoted part of popular music history, but with its players. The story may open on a Sex Pistols concert, but it makes clear that the gig was at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall and only 40 people were in attendance. It expects you to recognize Wilson’s singular on-air persona and make connections between it and Steve Coogan’s work as washed-up talk show host and deejay Alan Partridge. It also assumes that you’ll understand why Andy Serkis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, John Simm, and Danny Cunningham are well-cast as enigmatic producer Martin Hannett, irascible band manager Rob Gretton, conflicted Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, New Order founder Bernard Sumner, and bacchanalian Happy Mondays leader Shaun Ryder. Finally, its margins teem with noteworthy British cultural figures. Wilson, Vini Reilly, Mark E. Smith, and members of the Stone Roses, the Buzzcocks, and the Happy Mondays make cameos. Simon Pegg also makes a brief appearance as journalist Paul Morley. Sometimes they’re commented upon, particularly to bolster the protagonist’s argument that history is being made, but there’s little qualification beyond that.

All of this specificity is in the service of regionalism, which may be 24-Hour Party People’s biggest contribution. It’s clearly the best way to honor Wilson, a person who believed in locals creating their own cultural forms rather than relying upon metropolitan areas like London to produce “important” work. But it also rebels against the heritage picture, which was much in vogue during the Thatcher era in which the movie is set. During the 1980s, much emphasis was placed on movies from the United Kingdom exhibiting a distinct national (re: English) character. 24-Hour Party People works in direct opposition toward these aims, arguing instead that cities possess distinctions worth capturing. The movie of course follows 90s titles like The Full Monty and Trainspotting, which made a point of representing Sheffield and Edinburgh as specific places with their own rich histories.

Of course, the movie is not without its problems. As the lone staffer of color, I want more consideration of what Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) contributed. I also wish attention was paid toward relevant female contributions. Based on the movie, you may think that white men did all the heavy lifting while various women married and divorced them. Members of the Buzzcocks may have put together the Sex Pistols gig, but a student from Manchester Polytechnic named Linder Sterling designed their flyers and cover art from collages that combined images from appliance catalogs, car magazines, and pornography while fronting a challenging post-rock band called Ludus. Martin Hannett may have become an in-demand producer after helping create Joy Division’s airless death disco, but he also worked with a funky New York-based sister act called ESG, who played the opening of the Haçienda, the label’s influential nightclub. Another noteworthy female performer at the club was a Detroit ex-pat named Madonna.

Finally, I question whether the movie actually breaks new ground for the music biopic. While many critics praised its post-modern sensibility, narrative execution is pretty standard. Exposition drags as the story gets bogged down by suicide, drug addiction, excess, and poor business decisions. Also, for a film that sets out to tell a small story with little regard for mythology, it does a great deal of lionization.

That said, I still enjoy 24-Hour Party People. It deftly creates a sense of place and time for a story that may otherwise be overlooked. While it ultimately surrenders to the processes of canonization, it never ceases to jab, wink, meander, and interject, thus challenging the idea that one story could ever account for a collective history.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010 11:44 am

    24-Hour Party People asks a lot of its audience. This is most evident in its tone, which is decidedly self-referential. Much of the movie hinges on Wilson speaking directly to the camera.

    I actually found this the most endearing aspect of the film, which I really enjoyed. I remember that moment, particularly from the European end of things, so my memories of music are more alignment with the way the film than others in the genre.

    Welcome to Fry Butt.

  2. June 21, 2010 12:18 pm

    Thank you so much for this post… After I left NYC in the late 70s, the only place I had to learn about new music was college radio. Which I didn’t know was about to die until it was gone. But that’s where I learned about bands that were to become favorites of mine, like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Psychedelic Furs. But I always knew I was missing a lot of the picture. This film’s going on my “must see” list.

  3. tanyadiva permalink
    June 21, 2010 1:17 pm

    If people can’t relate to or enjoy this type of music, I feel bad for them. There WAS music between the punk and grunge (I just puked on my keyboard when I typed that). And 24 hour showcased that. Coogan has never been as good as in this movie, and the “Blue Monday” scene was tremendous.

    But if I may…a year ago I saw Shaun Ryder sitting on the asphalt in Fort Lauderdale, texting by a hot dog cart. I really can’t add anything to that sentence.

  4. Alyx Vesey permalink
    June 21, 2010 4:40 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine – I completely agree. I even tried to emulate his cadence for quite some time. It’s evident on some of my last college radio mix tapes. Some folks might dismiss it as being analogous to Rob Gordon’s musings in High Fidelity (though I think it’s put to good — though different — use in that example). And thank you for having me!

    @redlami This movie fills in some blanks. It misses some things, of course, but I also appreciate its inclusion of more obscure acts from Factory like Vini Reilly and A Certain Ratio, the latter of whom were especially influential on the dance-punk sound in the 2000s.

    @tanyadiva Ah, I forgot to talk about that sequence. The split screen, the economic use of storytelling, the essential reveal that the label’s biggest hit will lose them money, classic. I also like the deleted scene which features an early version of the Happy Mondays learning how to play the song.

    And as for your Shaun Ryder sighting, I have no words. Only envy.

  5. June 21, 2010 7:37 pm

    I’ve heard of this, but haven’t seen it yet, largely because no where around anywhere I’ve ever lived has carried it. Seriously, it’s been on my To Watch list for…oh… 7 years?

    I’ve always loved the films that showcase different areas of a country as being… different. The Full Monty and Trainspotting are, as you mentioned, great at doing that. And that’s part of why I love The Commitments so much, because it’s not just about an Irish Blues band, it’s about a Dublin Blues band. I think that too often folks just blur the lines and blend everything together.

    Awesome first post, Alyx! Can’t wait to read more!

  6. badhedgehog permalink
    June 22, 2010 5:48 am

    I enjoyed this film hugely. A film about Tony Wilson was always going to have a touch of exaggeration and embellishment; and the way that the narrative and narration totally embrace that is very nice, very fitting. It is a story about a man retelling a story about himself.

    Things I specially love: Rowetta plays herself in it! Mark E Smith has a cameo role! God likes the Durutti Column! (of course God likes the Durutti Column!)

    Regarding Andy Serkis as Martin Hannett, I half recall what was either an interview between Mark Kermode and Andy Serkis, or an anecdote related on the radio by Mark Kermode, the gist of which was as follows. (imagine paraphrase punctutation marks here) Andy Serkis’s most remarkable performance this year has been as a very strange twisted individual, more monster than human, spending much of his time in the dark tending to his obsessions… he also played Gollum in Lord of the Rings (imagine paraphrase punctutation marks here)(imagine percussion here)

    Oh, I also enjoyed this post hugely.

  7. June 22, 2010 10:40 pm

    All of this specificity is in the service of regionalism, which may be 24-Hour Party People’s biggest contribution. It’s clearly the best way to honor Wilson, a person who believed in locals creating their own cultural forms rather than relying upon metropolitan areas like London to produce “important” work. But it also rebels against the heritage picture, which was much in vogue during the Thatcher era in which the movie is set.

    I think this is my favorite aspect of the film and also this post.

  8. June 24, 2010 2:07 pm

    I saw Shaun Ryder DJing a student union a few years ago, he was standing there, only his nose and mouth visible under his woolly hat, downing half-full pints of guiness (I think it was guiness?) while some young dude put on the records. I wanted to get him to sign my ticket, but it was dark and I didn’t want to get it mixed up with the fiver in my pocket instead. And to be honest, the poor man seemed fucked. Christ, he’s Shaun Ryder, he should be making a bit more money than he obviously was at that point.

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  1. Music Movie Mondays with I Fry Mine In Butter: 24-Hour Party People « Feminist Music Geek

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