Beatification of the Beat
At the height of the Hacienda’s glory, founder and Factory Records label owner Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) stands in his famous Manchester club. Regarding the assembled crowd of hallucinogen-fueled youth, he proclaims, “This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing. Welcome to Manchester.” Lights flash. Music throbs. The moment, recalled in 24 Hour Party People, marks the exuberant beginning of rave and club culture as we now know it.
24 Hour Party People names the ‘80s and early ‘90s Madchester scene a “historical” event, while also making it feel emphatically immediate. Despite Wilson’s assertions that every band performance, every club night, every album will stand as testaments to an important musical era, the movement appears always to be a celebration of Now: the fleetingness of the magical pre-dawn hours, the flashy hedonism of designer drugs, the immediacy of driving electronic rhythms.
The movie begins in 1976 with Wilson, a reporter for Manchester-based Granada TV, hang-gliding as part of a news stunt. After brief bursts of flight and bruising crashes into the underbrush, Wilson self-consciously turns to face the camera and explains that during the film, hang-gliding will serve as a metaphor for his life and the life of the Manchester club scene: “I have one word for you: Icarus. If you get it, great. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter.” Wilson continues to address the audience in virtually every scene, referring to his actions as “postmodern”—he’s plainly a poster boy for the ironic generation. All of this self-referential smugness can bring 24 Hour Party People down. There’s only so much gleeful mugging one can handle, and 24 Hour Party People‘s mockumentary style feels stale.
Still, the film is buoyant, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable, for several reasons. A string of dead-on performances make for fabulously believable yet wonderfully larger-than-life characters. In particular, Sean Harris as Ian Curtis, the depressed and doomed lead singer of Joy Division, channels Curtis with the tragic rock star ferocity he deserves. When performing on stage, Harris quivers and rolls his bloodshot eyeballs back into his head: the effect is electric. For those of us too young to have witnessed Joy Division live, this is a welcome compensation. John Simm bears a striking resemblance to his character, Bernard Sumner from New Order, not only in looks, but also in his slightly arch sincerity. And Danny Cunningham plays Shaun Ryder, the drugged out force behind the Happy Mondays, in a way that is both repugnant and enticing.
Of course, the film’s real star is the music. Songs from Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays as well as the Stone Roses, the Buzzcocks, and Orbital, create an aural tableau of decadence and ecstasy. The film, however, like Wilson, is not just interested in electronic music, but also in its connection to a seemingly unlikely ancestor: punk.
24 Hour Party People charts a direct chronology, at least in relation to Wilson, from the Sex Pistols to rave and dj culture. Surprisingly, the step from punk’s in-your-face social anarchy to the dance-while-the-world-burns mentality of club music makes sense. Both necessitate some sort of joy in chaos, a love of the unknown and the disorderly. As Wilson’s musical interests shift, so do the film’s, from punk to electronic, enabling the audience to understand electronic music’s emergence as a logical event in musical history. Most importantly, the film insists that good music is good music, and there is no sense in defining quality by genre, regardless of the film’s focus on a specific type of music.
And that focus, of course, is linked to Manchester’s heyday. Once the Hacienda opens its doors, a stream of hipsters makes it the stuff of legend, including the inevitable “dark side.” Wilson descends into cocaine addiction and his increasingly popular ecstasy-fueled parties lead to an infestation of dealers at the club, and with dealers comes violence. As popular as the Hacienda was, it made no money since kids were popping pills, not chugging booze.
When, for financial reasons, the club finally shuts its doors, Wilson and the boys from the Happy Mondays stumble into the gray morning outside. They puff on a joint as the pills slowly begin to wear off, and their eyes become fuzzier. In one final sight gag, God appears to Wilson (looking suspiciously like Wilson himself) and declares the Hacienda and its record label to be part of history. Wilson, it seems, has done it all right.
Wilson lived for the explosive moment. That’s the joy of 24 Hour Party People; despite its sometimes cheap irony and juvenile humor, it invites us to live that moment, too. Leaving the movie theater, we might feel a little like Wilson and his friends; we stumble out, hazy-eyed, knowing only that a vaguely precious moment is over, but it sure was a hell of a good time. And, for once, that’s enough.