Uncharted Cinema #21: 24 Hour Party People

24hourpartypeople

Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2002, 117 min.

Before: I just watched another Winterbottom/Coogan film which I found a little too slight for my tastes. I think Winterbottom has proven he can make interesting films. But “interesting” doesn’t always mean “good”. I hope this one is both!

After: 24 Hour Party People tells the story of the 80’s New Wave Liverpool music scene through the eyes of Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a journalist turned TV Presenter turned record label and nightclub owner.

The crux of the story show Tony Wilson’s roller-coaster ride through this groundbreaking era of music. He’s a genuine fan and was one of the twenty-or-so people in the audience for the first Sex Pistols show.

That experience seemed to have kicked-started something in him, and from then on he did his best to bring the music to the people and the people to the music. And he set out to do it without selling out.

Winterbottom plays with the structure of cinema in interesting ways here. Tony Wilson will turn to the screen and talk about how he is in a film. He’ll compare what is happening on screen to the real events, explaining what the differences are and why the film-makers made certain choices.

It’s funny and clever at times, and it’s in service to the overall tone Winterbottom is trying to portray. The film remains in that light and humorous place, even when tragedy occurs.

The cast convinces, although it’s a bit easier in the framework of unreality, when their real-life counterparts make cameo appearances beside them. There is even a sequence where Tony Wilson points out these cameos to the audience.

The music is straight from the time: Joy Division, The Clash, Happy Mondays, New Order. And the actors who portray those musicians are really great. It’s hard to tell what concert footage was real and what was recreated.

A lot of what I’ve described is very interesting and unique, but a lot of times Winterbottom and Coogan are just too cheeky. Playfulness is a virtue in film-making, but in this movie the asides didn’t feel like they were in service of the film as a whole. The Ride of Valkyries pigeon-poisoning, the UFO, the appearance of god, etc. All interesting scenes in their own right but just too much cuteness for the unrelated story.

Despite this, the film does one thing well: it paints a picture of the time and place. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed it though. The humor in the dialog and situations didn’t strike a chord with me. It’s either too slight, too broad, or just too whimsical for whimsy’s sake. Coogan and Winterbottom are talented, but their style starts to drag after a while.

I had a similar experience during a recent viewing of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. That was another Winterbottom/Coogan collaboration which, like 24 Hour party People, had flashes of greatness but ended up being far less than the sum of its parts.

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