Manchester memoirs

Punk legends reveal themselves and the good old days in this bizarre documentary.

“I agree with John Ford — when you have to choose between the truth and the legend, pick the legend.” Here we have the mid-1970s attitude of Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), British journalist and host on Granada TV, as he narrates, while acting out, moments within 20 years of his life — ranging anywhere from significant to trivial, but beginning with the legendary.

On June 4, 1976, a fistful of people watched The Sex Pistols perform on a little Manchester stage: In 24 Hour Party People, faux rockers gyrate and re-enact that same show, interlaced with fragmentary footage of the real thing. Wilson enjoys it all while commenting on the whole scenario as part of a small audience witnessing a landmark moment in rock history, and “we” are allowed to join in.

Back in the day, Wilson’s show, “So It Goes,” gave TV voice to bands that had very few audio-visual avenues at the time — bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Jam and the Stranglers. On his own time, he opened the Fac 1 nightclub because, as he claims in the film, “I just feel like, culturally, Manchester is lagging behind.”

In the wake of the punk explosion, Wilson creates Factory Records (a label he co-founded with Alan Erasmus and Rob Gretton) and produces Ian Curtis’ (Sean Harris) band, Stiff Kittens, just as it changes its name to Joy Division. He continues to produce the band when it morphs into New Order — while later coddling and recording the Happy Mondays. He’s a guy who never sold out because he never had anything to sell. Giving his bands total freedom was his badge of honor as well as the label’s downfall.

British director Michael Winterbottom (With or Without You, Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo) and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (The Claim and Hilary and Jackie) have concocted a happy-go-volatile mixture of post-punk documentary sprinkled with post-insights and entertaining flashes of “maybe” truths. Like a night out at a club, 24 Hour Party People pieces together moments of mixed intoxicants, pick-up rituals, defiant dancing and bar banter, orbiting around revolutionary music that emerged out of the dust and gloom of an industrial town.

This film is a must-see for Joy Division fans. It gives a cinematic heart and soul to music that already has them, that strange “seeds of goth and New Wave” mix, with Curtis’ melodic-melancholy vocals weaving through the songs intensely and imperfectly, like he’s singing on another planet. Happy Mondays devotees will see Danny Cunningham’s very believable version of lead singer-drug addict-troublemaker Shaun Ryder, who later in the film is called the greatest poet since Yeats by God (who looks a lot like Wilson). The Happy Mondays sat on the first few steps of the beginning of house music, with Ryder’s gliding vocals over happy-trippy beats.

The film unfolds like a happening, glittering with little bits of Manchester music heroes. There’s a “don’t blink” cameo by Mark E. Smith of the Fall, and the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto as a bathroom janitor, witnessing a young Devoto (Martin Hancock) shagging someone the janitor Devoto doesn’t recall shagging. Watch for the real Tony Wilson as the Granada TV studio director.

Party People has wonderful little exhibitions of personality peculiarities, like when Wilson spends five minutes outwardly stressing over how people are going to distinguish between him and the club manager, also named Tony. Coogan carries the film with a refreshing dry charm and a humor that’s not afraid to be the butt of the joke, easily slipping in and out of his “show host” persona whenever he disintegrates that fourth wall.

Director Winterbottom somehow has captured a voyeuristic excitement and unpredictable artistic energy, like you’re listening and watching the real lives of real bands through a time portal. This is a celebration, portrayed through a very personal chronicle, of an exciting place and time in rock ’n’ roll history, with a dead-on direct tap into its charming, chaotic, offbeat energy.

Opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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