“That is the musical equivalent of Che Guevara… take it all in”.
So says Tony Wilson, ‘Mr Manchester’ and subject of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, as he stands over the open coffin of the recently deceased Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. If one scene can sum up this film, then perhaps this is it, for two reasons. Firstly, it illustrates the character of the man whose career we spend the film following: the statement managing to be utterly pretentious, if arguably in part true, and a grossly inappropriate thing to say at a funeral wake. But more importantly, the scene is illustrative because it didn’t actually happen in real life; the film explicitly deals in hearsay, rumour and blatantly false legend, and is all the better for it.
Wilson, for the uninitiated, was a true curio: a regional television presenter for Granada Television in Manchester, he fronted the short-lived music programme So It Goes between 1976 and 1979. This happened to place him at the birth (and death) of British Punk, his baptism of fire coming when he attended the Sex Pistols’ infamous first Manchester gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. That night would change the Manchester music scene forever inspiring the likes of Joy Division, Buzzcocks, The Smiths and The Fall amongst countless others. Wilson himself too would be changed: in the presence of a broadcasting ban on the Pistols, his small regional show would be the only place punk bands could be seen, thrusting him into the national spotlight.
Wilson would go on to form a record label, Factory, and later open a nightclub, The Haçienda, and find himself at the centre of the music scene of that great northern English city, and the film charts the ups and downs, successes and catastrophic failures, moments of inspiration and utter foolishness which seemed to go hand-in-hand with his artistic business decisions. But in the background of the sex and drugs, he continued to broadcast for Granada Television, and the film neatly juxtaposes moments of rock n’ roll excess with his day-to-day job, being sent around the city to interview farmers, town criers and dwarves washing elephants. “I went to Cambridge University” he protests to his producers, albeit in vain.
Wilson is played by Steve Coogan, a Manchester institution himself, though primarily famous for his Alan Partridge character, a failing and somewhat pathetically self-important regional broadcaster. The parallels are obvious. But while Partridge is a monster, driven by self-interest and a hateful misanthropy, Wilson is more of a Don Quixote character, driven by mad art-school situationist-inspired ideals, unwilling to compromise in the face of commercial realities (like selling records at a profit, or signing contracts with artists). But for all the bad decisions, there is a kind of self-awareness. “I protected myself from the dilemma of selling out by having nothing to sell” a typical quote. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza rolled into one.
Critics of the film have accused it of being too episodic, and it is true that in the biopic tradition its construction is consigned to a loosely-strung together sequence of events and supposed happenings in the life of the protagonist. But just as Tony Wilson is no ordinary cinematic subject, so director Michael Winterbottom is no ordinary director, and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce certainly no ordinary hack. Their later collaboration, A Cock and Bull Story (2006) is their masterpiece of self-reflexivity, and here too there is the sense that the film is operating on planes significantly detached from traditional filmic forms. As much as this film is based on established facts of Wilson’s life, there are numerous diversions which suggest exaggeration or urban myth; one scene, where Wilson’s then wife Lindsay is seen having sex with Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto, the real Howard Devoto appears as a toilet attendant, denying that this event ever took place.
Who really knows if Shaun Ryder dropped two months worth of methadone across an airport passenger lounge, or if every 12″ copy of Blue Monday sold actually cost Factory money? Or if producer Martin Hannett did actually go to remote hillsides to record ‘silence’? No-one really cares too much, least of all Wilson himself; “if one has to choose between legend and the truth, choose the legend”, he offers. In giving us the myths, 24 Hour Party People gives us a truth about the Manchester music scene much more profoundly than the mere facts would. Oh, and did I mention it is hysterically funny, too?