24 Hour Party People is a very fun chapter in Michael Winterbottom’s on-again, off-again history of making movies that fuck with the truth.
Released in the UK in April 2002 (it didn’t hit the States until later that August), the film is an anarchic history of the Manchester music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s mostly told from the perspective of Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan), a TV journalist and presenter who put a lot of Manchester bands on the map when he founded Factory Records.
It’s filmed in a grungy, guerrilla style (shot on digital video before getting transferred to celluloid) by Winterbottom and the late Wim Wenders cinematographer Robby Muller, following in the same improvised, handheld-camera vein Winterbottom went for with his 1999 drama Wonderland. But Party (scripted by longtime Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell-Boyce) is a biographical blur, a mad melding of fact and fiction—and it’s really the only way the story could be told.
With the movie populated by real-life characters (played by such familiar Brit faces as Paddy Considine, Lennie James, Simon Pegg and a pre-Gollum Andy Serkis) who spent most of that era high on something—weed, ecstasy, their own ego—of course the facts are gonna be hazy. But since it’s also about bratty punk bands who relished in taking the piss out of audiences and themselves, telling the story in an unruly, unconventional manner—with the well-documented events, embellished accounts and straight-up shit that didn’t happen all together in the same narrative—makes sense. Winterbottom even splices archival footage into recreated scenes.
The movie begins with Wilson doing a news report where he goes hang gliding, which includes shots of the real Wilson briefly in the air before he comes crashing down. He later attends a barely populated Sex Pistols show, explaining to us how historic this night is (future Manchester rock stars are in the crowd!) as Winterbottom throws in footage of the actual Pistols performing at this show. (He previously did this in the 1997 war drama Welcome to Sarajevo, where he combined scenes of characters witnessing and reporting on street carnage with footage of the events.)
It’s funny seeing people on Party’s IMDb page list all the film’s anachronistic “goofs.” Winterbottom makes it known from the jump that accuracy, either on screen or in the story, is not a top priority. I mean, this is a movie where Wilson’s first wife (Shirley Henderson) gets back at him, after she catches him getting fellated by a hooker, by having a quickie with Buzzcocks bandmate Howard Devoto. After Wilson catches them, he walks past a bald-headed janitor—played by the real Howard Devoto—who looks straight in the camera and says this didn’t happen. (Many people from those Factory years pop up in cameos, including, of course, Wilson.) Wilson eventually explains in voiceover that Devoto is telling the truth. However, Wilson follows the same storytelling credo that was famously uttered in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Constantly breaking the fourth wall like an even more entitled Ferris Bueller, Coogan plays Wilson as both the ringleader of this crazed circus and the most unreliable narrator of all time. (Coogan actually worked with Wilson on a late-night show back in the ‘80s.) “This is not a film about me,” he tells us, perhaps the biggest lie in the whole movie. Although he considers himself “a minor character in [his] own story,” the usually-in-over-his-head Wilson is presented as a guy who believes none of this—from starting a club night that gave Joy Division a stage to perform to opening the Haçienda nightclub, which was home base for the drug-fueled “Madchester” era of rave culture—would’ve happened without him.
If Wilson (who passed away in 2007) wasn’t actually a real person, you’d swear he was another one of Coogan’s comic creations. The pompous, pontificating Wilson isn’t that far off from Alan Partridge or the other narcissistic legends in their own minds Coogan has played over the years. In recent years, Coogan and Winterbottom have collaborated on productions where Coogan is playing a self-centered version of himself. He played himself in the film-within-a-film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and he paired up with fellow comedian Rob Brydon (who also appeared in Party and Shandy) for The Trip, a travelogue/buddy comedy that has also been turned into a quartet of films.
While Winterbottom continues to make commercial films with straightforward, conventional narratives, he often takes subversive detours by doing offbeat indie projects (like the aforementioned stuff he’s done with Coogan) where audiences have to wonder what’s real and what’s fake. Winterbottom diehards will definitely remember when he took this to the extreme with the 2004 love story 9 Songs, where he had two actors play a couple who went to concerts when they weren’t engaging in graphic hardcore sex.
With Party (which you can currently stream for free on Pluto TV, Tubi or even YouTube), Winterbottom proved that you could make a music biopic that didn’t feel rote and routine. It could be suspicious as hell, but still entertaining and engrossing. It’s like he saw all those Oscar-winning Flawed-But-Brilliant Man shows like Ray, Walk the Line and Bohemian Rhapsody coming and did his before they all cluttered the scene. Funny, frenetic and sometimes fabricated, 24 Hour Party People made a mockery out of rock-and-roll biopics way before Walk Hard showed up five years later.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.