The Essential Movie Library #96: 24 Hour Party People (2002)

Navigating Manchester’s music revolution from Joy Division to the Happy Mondays

No movie since A Hard Day’s Night (Essential Movie Library #64) so well captures rock and roll’s spirit as British director Michael Winterbottom’s story of Tony Wilson, real-life journalist-turned-mogul navigating the punk revolution from the Sex Pistols to the “Madchester” scene when he’s not being swept along by it. Played by Steve Coogan in the performance that made him a star outside England—where he already was a star—Wilson is by turns 24 Hour Party People’s narrator, witness, advocate, and fly in the ointment. Unfailingly eloquent about his passions, he uses words like “beauty” unabashedly, and his zeal for the bands he manages is infectious even when elusive, unless you hear something in the Happy Mondays (besides the song that provided this movie’s title) that most people without a British accent don’t.

Movies have been misunderstanding rock since at least 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, which—along with the more straightforward virtues of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Fats Domino—was savvy enough to make its incomprehension a virtue, too. Winterbottom’s obsessions with music run through many of his pictures, finally, uh, climaxing with 9 Songs, where lovers’ ongoing pursuit of the ultimate gig is interrupted only by ongoing unsimulated sex that created a furor upon the movie’s release. Wry, moving, not a little loony, a cinematic song to the city of Manchester as much as to song itself, and giving postmodernism a good name for 117 minutes, Party People leaves you exhilarated and digging out the Joy Division CDs, which of course bring you right back down.