Originally, director Michael Winterbottom envisioned it as "a Mancunian Boogie Nights". Then, roughly halfway through the shoot, it was announced it'd be more of a "rock `n' roll Natural Born Killers". But now it's in the can and on the screen, it's apparent that Winterbottom's Madchester movie is neither of these. Shot entirely on DV in a rough-and-ready, on-the-hoof style, with all the cast encouraged to improvise (much like Winterbottom's own Wonderland), the mood is far more This Is Spinal Tap, with almost everything played for laughs.
This is because the focus is squarely on Factory Records founder Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a ludicrous, pretentious but somehow admirable figure who was, by day, a cheesy local TV presenter, and by night rode at the vanguard of a British music revolution. Coogan is perfectly cast, not least because Wilson has a vague whiff of Alan Partridge about him, and, while playing it utterly straight, he keeps the mood suitably tongue-in-cheek, with some of the funniest moments coming from his straight-to-camera asides and explanations.
But while Wilson is both the star and the chorus, the scope of Winterbottom's nostalgia-arouser is far wider, kicking off with the birth of punk in the mid '70s and ending with the death of Acid House in the early '90s. It takes in the rise of inspired gloomsters Joy Division, the suicide of their troubled lead singer Ian Curtis (played with disturbing precision by newcomer Sean Harris) and the subsequent formation of New Order by the remaining members. Then we witness the arrival of shambolic pranksters the Happy Mondays, their smack `n' crack-fuelled Bahamas blow-out which finally closed down Factory, and the overrunning of The Haçienda by drug lords.
The genius of 24 Hour Party People, however, is that rather than trying to reveal what really happened, it deliberately limits itself to portraying what the people involved remember happening... And then it boasts about it. As Wilson, Coogan tells us: "Given the choice between the truth and legend, print the legend." As well as being a massively convenient get-out clause, this also frees up Winterbottom and scripter Frank Cottrell Boyce to have a bit of fun. For example, they herald the Happy Mondays' arrival with the apocryphal incident where brothers Shaun and Paul Ryder (Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell) poisoned a few hundred pigeons and then watched them fall out of the sky - to sickly hilarious effect.
It's hardly flawless, but given Winterbottom shot more than a hundred hours of footage it's no surprise that the final cut is a bit patchy, with New Order in particular shoved too far into the background. That's a minor complaint, though. In terms of capturing the spirit of a scene, 24 Hour Party People is a soaraway success.
Pills, thrills and belly-laughs abound in Michael Winterbottom's surprisingly funny and often outrageous portrayal of the rise and fall of the Madchester scene. Rave on.
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