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With: Steve Coogan, Sean Harris, Shirley Henderson, Simon Pegg
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
MPAA Rating: R for strong language, drug use and sexuality
Running Time: 117
Date: 02/13/2002

24 Hour Party People (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Party' Mess

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Usually if a movie makes good use of a classic 70s or 80s pop song, I give it a few extra points. Sandra Goldbacher's recent Me Without You was an excellent example of a well-used pop score.

Now comes Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, which has Manchester music guru Tony Wilson as its subject. In the late 70s and early 80s, Wilson introduced Manchester, England to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, helped form Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, opened the famous Hacienda club and established Factory records. We're talking subject matter ripe for a great pop score.

Yet, with the exception of Joy Division's sublime "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that runs during the closing credits, this film destroys its songs, stomping and grinding them into sloppy, shaky mush.

For example, the movie promises to recapture a legendary Sex Pistols concert -- their first, performed in front of approximately 42 people. Winterbottom combines the original awful, murky film footage of the concert (the Pistols playing "No Fun") with his new, awful, murky digital video footage. Not to mention that the sound is muffled and indistinct.

The film plays about 10 more seconds of muddy Sex Pistols music ("Anarchy in the UK") and about 10 seconds of muddy Clash music ("Janie Jones") before moving on to the brief history of Joy Division. (The ironic band name refers to WWII Nazi concentration camp brothels.)

For the tiny amount of time he's onscreen, Sean Harris turns in a potent performance as Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis, who hung himself at age 23. He has a strong stage presence and exhibits both the elation and the sadness of the complicated singer.

As soon as Curtis dies, the film takes a nose dive. It spends its final 80 minutes or so on Wilson's second band, the Happy Mondays, who barely registered as a cult band here in the U.S. (They perform the title song.)

The Happy Mondays go through pretty much the same steps as any other rock band, drugs, fame, girls, etc. None of the members have any personality whatsoever. We've seen it all before, and it's especially empty and passionless here. Even last year's Mark Wahlberg vehicle Rock Star had more verve to it.

Winterbottom tries to separate 24 Hour Party People from the many other films in the rock movie genre by casting comic Steve Coogan as Wilson and having him narrate the tale, talking straight to the camera and making ironic literary and historical references throughout. When no one shows up for a gig, he raises the notion that only a handful of people showed up for the Last Supper.

Coogan is definitely funny but even he can't inject the needed energy into this tired film. The ploy only ends up making the film feel more metallic.

Indeed, in the film's first 20 minutes (the best part), Wilson talks passionately about the world's most exciting music, i.e. the Sex Pistols and the like, but the film can't begin to approach echoing that excitement.

The lumpiness of the film is not aided at all by Robby Muller's ugly digital video cinematography. Muller is unquestionably one of the great living geniuses of the medium, and his brilliant shaky-cam work on Breaking the Waves helped underscore the emotional torment in that film, but here it comes across as poor and abrasive copycat work. He's imitating his own imitators.

I know that both Joy Division and the Happy Mondays still have their fervent followers, and those fans will no doubt enjoy 24 Hour Party People. But others hoping to be introduced to the music will wonder what the big deal was.

Instead, I recommend viewers rent Alex Cox's brilliant Sid and Nancy (1986), one of the best rock films of all time, and perhaps the best film about this period. And The Punk Rock Movie (1978) provides a low-budget look at some of the bands mentioned in 24 Hour Party People. (In fact, I suspect some of this old footage was borrowed for the new movie.)

I've only seen one other Winterbottom film, The Claim, which took on the Western genre with similar results. I know he's quite respected in certain quarters, but based only on these two films, his talent seems to lie in making dull genre films and poorly attempting to cover up the fact that they're dull.

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