Movie review, '24 Hour Party People'

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Making a good rock 'n' roll movie must be harder than it seems, because there are so few of them -- even though it's been nearly four decades since Dick Lester and The Beatles seemed to blow out the cobwebs and cliches from the movie-musical form in their classic "A Hard Day's Night." But Michael Winterbottom makes it look easy in "24 Hour Party People." This is a movie -- based on the weird career of Cambridge-educated TV reporter, rock impresario and recording executive Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) -- that captures con brio the breezy, irreverent, party-on spirit of rock, specifically the British punk and post-punk movement in Manchester in the '70s and '80s.

It's a bio movie, covering Wilson's career and that of the groups Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays and others -- including The Sex Pistols, the grand old men in this particular history. Beginning in June 1976 with a Sex Pistols concert at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall, the movie sweeps through 17 years, covering the rise and fall of Manchester rock and Wilson's Factory record label, with stops for the suicide of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris), the band's reformation as New Order, and the incredibly troublesome careers of Shaun and Paul Ryder of Happy Mondays (Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell) and the Factory's madman perfectionist engineer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis of "Lord of the Rings") -- as well as Wilson's evanescent marriage to wife Lindsey (Shirley Henderson) and an awful lot of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll along the way.

Though it's based on fact, with many real-life subjects popping up in cameo roles and the original groups on the soundtrack, there's nothing stiff, contrived or falsely celebratory about "24 Hour Party People." Done in a style that both reveals and mocks the era and characters -- and often sends up the whole form of the bio film -- "Party People" is a jam-packed mishmash of wall-to-wall music, trenchant character study, slick sociology and sly witty-Brit comedy. It strikes me as one of the most provocative films ever on British rock -- and I was no fan of any of the groups here when I walked into the movie.

Walking out, I decided I might have missed something beyond a few wild, woozy nights by never making it to Manchester (a.k.a. "Madchester") in the '80s, when Wilson and his bands ruled his dance club, The Hacienda, and his recording company, The Factory. Steve Coogan, the British TV comedian who looks and sounds like the young Robert Stephens filtered through Monty Python, plays Wilson as a tall, flippant, omnivorous and endlessly verbose ex-English lit major with a shock of tossable hair and an always-open mouth. He's a chap who loves rock, is a bit of a posh poser but never wears his heart -- or his art -- on his sleeve.

It's an absolutely brilliant performance. Rattling on like a man possessed, Coogan whips up a perfect mix of brains, guile, irony and chutzpah. Not only does Coogan convince us that he's Tony Wilson, he convinces us that, if he's not Wilson, he should be. (When the real Tony Wilson shows up in a brief cameo late in the film, he seems like an impostor.) Winterbottom is one director who rarely repeats himself; not much beyond overall intelligence and style seems to link movies like "Jude," "Welcome to Sarajevo," "The Claim" "Wonderland" and this one. But he and scenarist Frank Cottrell Boyce (the writer behind "Claim" and "Sarajevo") have come up with something fresh and brash here. They have Coogan s Wilson constantly talking to us, explaining what's happening and what will happen, and then stepping outside the movie to tell us what's going on with the picture -- and what its real-life subjects think of it all.

Using archival footage, the director uses the original groups. During the concert scenes, we often see period footage perfectly intercut with actors playing Hacienda customers. Robby Muller (the usual camera for Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch) gives the whole movie just the right cloudy, fast, faux-newsreel look.

I first saw "Party People" at the Cannes Film Festival, and when I saw it again in Chicago, it had lost none of its sarcastic drive or knife-edge humor. If you're even vaguely a fan of any of the groups in "24 Hour Party People," you'd be an idiot not to see this film. But even if, like me, you think the Sex Pistols are too helter-skelter, that Shaun Ryder is not (as Wilson believes) England's greatest poet since W.B. Yeats, and that a lot of punk stunk, there's a lot to enjoy in this movie. Play it loud.'

3 stars (out of 4)
"24 Hour Party People"

Directed by Michael Winterbottom; written by Frank Cottrell Boyce; photographed by Robby Muller; edited by Trevor Waite; production designed by Mark Tidesley; music by Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers and others; produced by Andrew Eaton. A United Artists release; opens Friday, Aug. 16. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: R (strong language, drug use and sexuality).
Tony Wilson -- Steve Coogan
Lindsey Wilson -- Shirley Henderson
Alan Erasmus -- Lennie James
Martin Hannett -- Andy Serkis
Shaun Ryder -- Danny Cunningham Rob Gretton -- Paddy Considine

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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