Twenty Four Hour Party People (2002)
Director Michael Winterbottom
Genre - Drama/Comedy
Steve Coogan Tony Wilson
Sean Harris Ian Curtis
John Simm Bernard Albrecht (Sumner)
Paddy Considine Rob Gretton
Ralf Little Peter Hook
Andy Serkis Martin Hannett
Lennie James - Alan Erasmus
It’s 25 years since the death of Ian Curtis and the release of Joy Divisions’ seminal album ‘Closer’ but the ‘shadowplay’ that he and the band left has never been so relevant in today’s musical landscape. Scores of new bands are now citing the original Manchester post-punk outfit as a major influence upon their style and there is a return towards emotionally heartfelt soul-searching in the lyrics. Bloc Party, Editors and The Open are amongst the growing wave of bands who view Joy Division as a major influence upon their work. Also, with New Order garnering more recognition and acclaim now than they have ever received in their career, and with two Ian Curtis films currently in production, interest in Joy Division has never been higher.
The story may has received a celluloid outing before though, albeit in a truncated form. Made in 2002, Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Twenty Four Hour Party People’ only tells part of the Joy Division story, preferring to document the rise and fall of Factory Records as seen through the thoughts and reminiscences of its creator Anthony H. Wilson, rather than just an account of the band. Played by Steve Coogan, Wilson comes across as a pretentious but likeable character who having the money and foresight sees the potential in the burgeoning music scene that was emerging in the wake of the first Sex Pistols’ gig in Manchester in 1976. The film actually begins with Wilson performing his mundane daily duties for Granada TV, as a news reporter, then cuts to him attending the historic debut at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June which was organised by members of The Buzzcocks. In attendance that night are many other prime movers in the Manchester scene. Wilson, in a knowing and regular, ‘post-event’ remark to camera, introduces Pete Shelley, Howard Devoto, Martin Hannett and several members of the soon to be Joy Division with prophetic calm. It matters little that the exact details of the time are accurate, with the Pistols playing another gig just over a month later the tide had well and truly turned and, as Wilson later remarks in the film, it’s always better to “print the legend”.
The first 50 minutes of the film provides a good snapshot of the times, flicking from archive footage of the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Iggy Pop, The Jam and The Stranglers to precise representations of the mid to late 70’s cultural horizon. Manchester is seen as a grey skied, run down working class environment inhabited by long over-coated youths and punks that Wilson, buoyed by the thriving scene himself, begins to turn into an exciting and vibrant place to be. The sequence depicting Wilson’s acquisition of the working men’s club, for his Factory nights, clearly portrays not only the times but also his raging ego to good comic effect. Once again facts, dates and incidents are condensed for the purposes of film narrative but the sentiment and characterisation is fairly truthful. Rob Grettons’ haranguing of Wilson as he enters the club is actually based upon a real event and Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Gretton is alarmingly accurate. The initial meeting and confrontation between Curtis and Wilson is also a well-documented occurrence, giving the film a real sense of authenticity. Sean Harris makes a passable Curtis, as do the other members respectively, but it was never the intention of Winterbottom to use ‘look-alikes’ in the roles, it was always who could recreate the desired attitude.
The authenticity continues throughout though, really holding the loose and, at times, irregular narrative together when the humour and digressions into Wilsons’ personal life take over. But even the humour itself is quite revealing. The dry northern wit of Joy Division is shown during the discussion of their chosen moniker, “It’s quite cheery though” as Albrecht (John Simm) sardonically remarks, clearly indicates their true personalities. It’s moments like this that a die-hard fan would appreciate, and hopefully the forthcoming feature/s will portray more of, whilst the live show recreations can only hint at the awesome power that the band truly possessed as a live unit. If you ever saw them, you’d never forget! Performing ‘Digital’ at The Factory, with Curtis still in the toilet at the opening of the song, does go some way to recapturing the mood and the ‘do-it-yourself’ nature of the times when anything seemed possible. Mixing stark B&W shots with, hand-held camera and occasional slow-motion makes it reminiscent of some of the early live footage from the ‘Here Are The Young Men’ video release also.
The monumental creation of Factory Records is re-enacted in typically comic and chaotic fashion too. As Wilson scrawls a contract in his own blood, purely to prove his own belief in his vision (something that Richey Manic would later modify), the band, Gretton and fellow Director of Factory, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James), discuss the merits of some ‘red leb’. It’s pure Factory and sums up the working practices of one of the most successful Independent Record Companies of the era, in all it’s anti-establishment glory. Even the recording of ‘She’s Lost Control’, with genius producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), contains its moments of comedy when Hannett famously told Steven Morris to play the drums “Faster but slower”, then proceeds to dismantle the kit (because of a rattle) and reassemble it on the rooftop. Such eccentric behaviour, together with his escalating drug use and alcoholism, gave Hannett the tag of ‘difficult to work with’ and blighted much of his career though. He was, however, the one that was instrumental in engineering the ‘Factory’ sound and crucial to the distinctive new production values that the label created and then cultivated for years to come.
The cultural climate of the late 70’s is further reinforced in a montage sequence when Joy Division begin to tour the country. A feeling of excitement and energy is supplied by the cross cutting between news footage and the band playing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Here Winterbottom fluently shows the rise of Joy Division with the growth of the National Front amidst a Britain in crisis due to petrol shortages and widespread strikes. Of course the ‘nazi’ tag was something that no amount of wit from the band themselves could ever repel and several of their gigs were marred by a skinhead element, as depicted in the film. Once more events are condensed for the sake of narrative when, at that same moment, Curtis experiences his first epileptic fit. The band appear confused, ambivalent or dismissive to this turn of events, but then again they were still only in their early 20’s at the time and had little or no such knowledge of the affliction or its debilitating effects. As mentioned before, Considine as Gretton is a spit and together with Peter Hook (Ralf Little) the ‘skins’ are taken on as it occurred in reality. Meanwhile Albrecht gets to look after the flailing Curtis until the moment when Hooky steps over his ‘fitting’ body, then proceeds to delve into his pocket for fags. This truly captures the naiveté and youth of the band whilst pinpointing the complex internal relationships that existed between them. Although it’s fairly comic, it’s also very harrowing and it clearly highlights the elements that need to be explored further in the forthcoming film/s.
The final moments of Ian Curtis’ life are also skimmed over leaving the uninitiated viewer little reason for his suicide; once again the event is presented as both tragic and comic simultaneously. It may seem cold but it does reflect the absolute confusion that his friends, family and colleagues would have felt, as they had no indication or idea that Curtis was contemplating suicide whatsoever at that time. The solitary figure of Curtis is seen returning home to his wife Deborah and baby daughter Natalie only to find them absent. He settles down to watch ‘Stroszek’, a Werner Herzog film, leaves Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’ on the turntable and then at some time during the early hours of 18th May 1980 hangs himself. In the film, the cuts are sharp here to jar, shock and disturb the viewer and it’s difficult to forget Curtis’ swinging legs, demented chicken on the TV screen and a babies bottle situated between the two.
As the narrative gaps in this first half of ‘Twenty Four Hour Party People’ reveal, the events are crying out for deeper explanation and interpretation, and even if you’re completely aware of the full facts behind the story a comprehensive account is overdue. With long time Joy Division photographer Anton Corbijn due to make his directional debut on a full-length portrayal of the tragic figure, with production beginning this July, I for one can’t wait.
‘Touching From A Distance’ (Ian Curtis and Joy Division) by Deborah Curtis
‘From Joy Division To New Order: The Factory Story’ by Mick Middles
‘Twenty Four Hour Party People’ by Tony Wilson
Tyler Durden tMx 19 04/05