Dogme meets the Manchester music scene in this well-wrought biopic
British cinema has moved on in the last decade – its heritage dramas now tend to have a modernistic twist, its dour regional stories are peppered with personal triumph, and it has embraced the notion that popular films can be a little dangerous without feeling guilty about worthiness. But a lot of British movies remain steeped in the principles of “quality TV drama”: there is a tacit understanding that everything can fall back on an appreciative audience of middlebrow TV supporters if things go tits up at the box office.
Even Trainspotting, an overrated film but one that nevertheless breathed new life into the notion of the British youth flick, was anchored to a middle-class, issue-aware, vegetarian sensibility. Had it not been the domestic success it became, there was always a place for it as a “hard-hitting” and “uncompromising” drama on Channel 4 – the liberal “minority” TV broadcaster that occasionally shows ground-breaking film and drama to a smallish audience of intellectuals, enabling them to feel mightily pleased with themselves for sticking with such difficult subjects. And, deep down, Trainspotting took itself too seriously to really shock those it could have shocked.
On the flip side, those British films that have tried to throw caution to the wind, alienate the middlebrow, and infuse a vulgarian ethos into the proceedings (Kevin and Perry Go Large, 2000, Ali G Indahouse, 2002, and Twin Town,1997) have largely succumbed to empty juvenilia. Either that, or they are generally too self-conscious to succeed as exploitation, or too British to be truly shocking.
Throughout this time, the one British director worth keeping an eye on was Michael Winterbottom. His own “heritage” drama, Jude (1996), was far too graphic and downbeat to be confused with the standard Merchant-Ivory fare. Butterfly Kiss (1995) stood alone as a British road movie, charting as it did an intensely deviant female friendship within an almost Ballardian world of bleak intersections and roadside cafés. And Wonderland (1999) was a small, emotionally intensive, London-based antithesis to the geo-personal tapestries of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Cleverly shot on digital video, it was a restless soap opera of drifting lives and conflicting agendas.
In his latest film, 24 Hour Party People (2002), Winterbottom, with his frequent screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, has managed to fuse his fondness for experimentation, salaciousness, and unpredictability in a self-reflexive seriocomic biopic that hangs on the considerable talent of a TV-bred mimic. The result is something of a breakthrough film for British cinema.
24 Hour Party People mythologizes the story of the Manchester music scene, 1976–92, from the perspective of the delicately pretentious Tony Wilson, played by Steve Coogan. Wilson in real life is an irrepressible character, a slightly more user-friendly Malcolm McLaren, and he’s been crying out for some sort of biopic treatment for years. As the owner of Factory records and the legendary Manchester nightclub the Hacienda, he discovered bands such as Joy Division, The Stone Rose, and The Happy Mondays and launched them to success and the trappings that came with it – i.e., unmanageable cash flows, drug addiction, bankruptcy, and, in some cases, death. Almost perversely, throughout these years, Wilson bankrolled his musical exploits by working as a regional TV presenter – anchoring cornball features on local issues with the required journalistic insincerity. It is a job he retains to this day. To anyone born and brought up in the northwest of England, Wilson is both dubiously enigmatic and utterly ridiculous.
The genius of 24 Hour Party People is that it colludes with this analysis, and evokes the absurd juxtaposition of Wilson the man, Wilson the presenter, and Wilson the music mogul in every frame. By having Coogan – as Wilson – as our guide, speaking directly to camera with the same cheesiness with which he would coordinate a minor TV item on pig farming or garden gnomes, the film can make corny references to its own artistic motivations without breaking the flow of the narrative or alienating audiences with more conventional tastes. Although it is arguable that Mike Myers did this years ago with Wayne’s World, that film is squarely junk food modernism; its artistic targets are really on a par with those of Caddyshack. 24 Hour Party People is, by contrast, a film for adults, and its low comedy is filtered through self-consciously pretentious Brechtian ambitions, which the film transcends by openly (and mockingly) referring to them.
The authentic yet displaced and frenetic style of the film is symptomatic of Winterbottom’s continued drive for innovation. Again using digital video, the film’s cheaply grainy visuals almost hides a remarkable attention to detail – such is his desire to camouflage the conventions of filmmaking and establish a subversive language more in keeping with the nature of the piece. And his carefully controlled blending of unpolished, Dogme95 principles (the film is shot by Robby Muller) with a deceptively high degree of stylization is inspired. It is the near-mainstream establishment of a new, liberating form of filmmaking: cheap guerrilla techniques that free up the potential for bravura set-pieces. As such, it both pays tribute to the verité rawness of the rock documentary and serves the pyrotechnical ambitions of a vivid imagination. Surely stylized DV is the future for no-budget filmmakers with a frustrated visual flair.
But the film belongs to Steve Coogan as much as it does to Winterbottom. Coogan is a versatile comic actor who, thus far, has excelled on television with a small repertory of parochial characters that are both strikingly well observed and outlandishly larger than life (inane TV presenter Alan Partridge and bleach blond thug Paul Calfe.) And he is singularly ambitious. Branching out into TV and film production, his crack at a mainstream comedy film last year (The Parole Officer) was a patchy affair, but it almost achieved its objectives in recreating an Ealing film for the masses that relied on gentle whimsy (well, a modern interpretation of that) rather than easy targets and TV conventions for its laughs. Most significantly, perhaps, it was conspicuously regional, with an abundance of northwest England locations and a strong thread of local comedy. (Whether Coogan’s long-term plan is to be seen as a kind of comic ambassador for Manchester, as Woody Allen is for New York, remains to be seen, but his initial attempts are to be applauded.) The artistic leap from The Parole Officer to 24 Hour Party People, which Coogan’s company also developed, is an admittedly self-conscious one – the new film is a deliberate stab at an “artier” project, something Coogan’s company hopes to return to in between mainstream successes – but it is still an unexpectedly progressive move. (And, ironically, 24 Hour … is the much more satisfying film, from any perspective.)
More significantly, for those who know or who have seen Wilson on TV, Coogan is note-perfect. It’s a performance of subtle brilliance that compares with Peter Sellers at his most inspired. Each nuance of Wilson’s pretentiousness, delicate self-delusion, and misguided philanthropy is captured by Coogan and skillfully lampooned, but he stops short of complete parody. Consequently, we retain some sympathy for the character, something not too many people seem to have for Wilson in real life.
But much of what makes 24 Hour Party People brilliant will also hold it back. Like a lot of Coogan’s (and Winterbottom’s) work, its defiantly regional stance may prevent it traveling successfully to London, let alone the U.S. And for those people who have never heard of, let alone seen, Tony Wilson, the central performance may be somewhat perplexing. But the Dogme feel does give it a bleakly northern European quality, and its form and focus mark it as a contemporary of some of the more audacious material to have emerged from Denmark, Norway, France, and Austria in recent years.
And there’s always the music to sell it. Joy Division (later New Order) and The Happy Mondays were phenomenally successful bands in the UK and Europe, and their music legacy is an instant pre-sell for the film. However, to give 24 Hour Party People its due, it doesn’t fall back on reconstructing band performances in the way a conventional rock biopic would. Rather, there is a jarring, stolen effect to the recreations of the sets. And although Wilson says halfway into the film that “it’s not about me, it’s about the music,” we all know full well that he is lying.
The film also houses a streak of rebellion that has not been properly harnessed in Britain since the handful of punk movies in the ’70s. When unhinged Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder is introduced in the second act, pre-fame and fortune, he and his brother are cheerfully feeding rat-poisoned bread to 3,000 pigeons from the roof of a Manchester office block, before watching them drop from the sky like feathered rocks and booting them around like footballs. Similarly, as Joy Division singer Ian Curtis thrashes around semi-consciously in another of his epileptic fits, he is frisked for cigarettes by fellow band member Peter Hook. It’s not the sort of behaviour that goes down well with broccoli-munching audiences from posh parts of London, but here Winterbottom seems to be celebrating it. It’s the kind of psychopathic mischief that makes singers like Shaun Ryder tick, and it’s the kind of un-PC sensibility that gives the film the strength of its convictions.
24 Hour Party People is ultimately a breath of fresh pollution for British cinema. It cocks a snoop at the recent, contrived history of “cool Britannia,” and bucks the trend of manufacturing cult appeal by sewing its own seam of intellectual credibility, comic mischief, and stylistic innovation. Winterbottom and Coogan are talents to watch. Each has a blunt commitment to a regional perspective that is shaped by a sophisticated modernism. Whether they work together again or not, there should be great films to come.