Great Films You Need To See – 24 Hour Party People (2002)

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially when it’s told with as much, well, ecstasy as Michael Winterbottom’s chaotically crazy paean to the high watermark of the Manchester music scene.

One of the best British movies of this century's first decade, 24 Hour Party People has pills, thrills, bellyaches and plenty more besides

One of the best British movies of this century’s first decade, 24 Hour Party People has pills, thrills, bellyaches and plenty more besides

Paraphrasing John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, local TV reporter and music impresario (and the ultimate unreliable narrator) Tony Wilson would rather “print the legend” given the choice between that and the truth and Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce are happy to go along.

Wilson is a singular figure and, played by Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge’s cooler, more successful brother, is as clever as he is funny, arrogant, pseudo-intellectual and eccentric. Although claiming at one point that “this is not a film about me; I’m a minor character in my own story” (in one of the film’s many fourth wall-breaking moments), 24 Hour Party People, like Madchester itself, wouldn’t exist without him.

Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) and wife Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) attend the Sex Pistols' seminal 1976 gig at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 24 Hour Party People

Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) and wife Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) attend the Sex Pistols’ seminal 1976 gig at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 24 Hour Party People

Winterbottom and Coogan gleefully pull the rug from under the audience right from the beginning of the movie, which starts in 1976 with Wilson throwing himself off a hill while attached to a hand-glider. After the elation comes the danger and finally the inevitable crash. Before we can work out the scene’s a metaphor for what’s to come, Wilson gets there ahead of us, saying straight to camera “obviously it’s symbolic, it works on both levels”. He goes on to add: “All I’ll say is … Icarus – If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter; but you probably should read more.”

When not presenting quirky items that generally show up on the “And finally…” section of news programmes, Wilson fronted So It Goes, one of the only avenues in which to discover exciting new music before the days of the world wide web. In June 1976 he and 41 other people (including his first wife Lindsay, played by Shirley Henderson) attended the Sex Pistols’ seminal Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall gig (which Winterbottom cleverly films by intermingling archive footage for the close-ups of the Pistols) alongside the future movers and shakers of Manchester music (as well as Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, who doesn’t count).

Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) on stage in 24 Hour Party People

Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) on stage in 24 Hour Party People

Through that gig, Wilson met Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) and the other members of soon-to-become post-punk poster boys Joy Division and created Factory Records. The film follows the crazy highs and the crazier lows of Factory’s turbulent existence, from Joy Division through to New Order (formed by the surviving members of Joy Division after Curtis’ suicide in 1980), the Happy Mondays, the Hacienda nightclub, the birth of rave culture and the inevitable implosion.

The no-nonsense Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine) and unconventional producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) in 24 Hour Party People

The no-nonsense Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine) and unconventional producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) in 24 Hour Party People

Winterbottom purposefully splits 24 Hour Party People into two distinct sections – everything that went on prior to Curtis hanging himself and everything that happened after. Curtis is given the respect he deserves; it’s through his band that Wilson formed Factory in the first place and his suicide is dealt with sensitively and suddenly. Harris’ portrayal of the troubled singer is excellent and particularly captures his intense and contorted on-stage persona (he’s even better than Sam Riley in 2007’s Control, the more autobiographical film about Curtis).

Following Curtis’ death, the film gets increasingly anarchic, reflecting both the times and the head space of Wilson, who doesn’t help himself by making a series of rash financial decisions in the name of art. He doesn’t care, for instance, when told Factory will lose money on every copy of New Order’s elaborately designed gatefold 12″ of Blue Monday as he thinks it won’t sell – only to be proved disastrously wrong when it goes on to become the highest-selling 12″ single in history.

Paul (Paul Popplewell) and Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) up to no good in 24 Hour Party People

Paul (Paul Popplewell) and Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) up to no good in 24 Hour Party People

Likewise, in spite of the fact the Hacienda is haemorrhaging cash he invests in new offices, which include a zinc roof that can only be observed from a helicopter and a £30,000 boardroom table that’s as pointless as it is cheap-looking. That was the dichotomy of Wilson; a can-do entrepreneur Thatcher would undoubtedly have been proud of had he not helped to usher in rave culture.

The film is strengthened by a rogue’s gallery of new and established talent, including Paddy Considine as the no-nonsense Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton, John Simm as New Order singer Bernard Sumner, Andy Serkis as unpredictable genius producer Martin Hannett and Danny Cunningham as Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder.

The seminal Hacienda nightclub brought back to life in 24 Hour Party People

The seminal Hacienda nightclub brought back to life in 24 Hour Party People

It also features a whole host of cameos, many of whom are used imaginatively in the movie, not least of which the real Tony Wilson as a TV producer lambasting the other Wilson’s presentation skills. In another inspired moment, Wilson recalls his wife having sex in a public toilet with Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto. As he walks out the camera pans to a cleaner who happens to be the real Howard Devoto, who turns to the camera and says: “I definitely don’t remember this happening.”

Despite the nods to Partridge, Coogan gives the role far more nuance than he’s credited for and clearly relishes the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He’s arguably never been better.

Needless to say, if you’re a fan of Manchester’s music scene from the late 70s to the early 90s you’ll be in seventh heaven when it comes to the soundtrack (there’s no Stone Roses or Oasis here, however; they’re not part of the Factory story).

One of the best British movies of this century’s first decade, 24 Hour Party People has pills, thrills, bellyaches and plenty more besides.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 5

The high school film has been bled pretty dry in recent times, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to say.

We’ve had high school musicals, horror and science fiction. Hell, we’ve even had high school-set versions of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You (1999)) and Othello (O, 2001).

One genre that’s been mined more than any other in the high school though is the coming of age tale. So Terri, on the face of it should just be one more entry on a long and largely tedious list.

Terri

The fact that it’s lifted to a loftier perch than many of its predecessors says a lot about about Azrael Jacobs’ film and the huge talent of leading man Jacob Wysocki as the titular Terri.

Terri is an outsider in the truest sense of the word. A large, ungainly figure, he lives with his sick uncle in a woodland cottage seemingly miles from the rest of civilisation. He goes to school in his pyjamas, turns up late to class and drifts along barely speaking a word to anyone. In fact the only time he seems to look happy is when he gives a hand to a wild bird in the woods by trapping mice and leaving them for it to eat.

His unusual dress sense, size and gentle ways single him out for unwanted attention at the hands of the school’s bullies, who poke fun at his naive and innocent demeanour. It’s not long before he pops on to the radar of school vice-principal Mr Fitzgerald (a rarely better John C Reilly), who pulls Terri into his office and opens up a conversation in the hope of getting through and helping him.

As Mr Fitzgerald sees it, Terri is one of the good-hearted kids, although the 15-year-old thinks of himself more of a monster and at first takes umbrage at the vice-principal’s slightly embarrassing efforts to make a connection. But Mr Fitzgerald persists and over the course of the next few weeks gradually develops a rapport with Terri.

Meanwhile, Terri comes to the aid of classmate Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) when he steps in to save her from being thrown out of school following an unfortunate incident during home economics. Shunned as a result of what’s happened, Heather and Terri form a tentative friendship.

Terri also finds himself connecting with fellow misfit Chad (Bridger Zadina) and the three teenagers end up spending an hilarious night dining out in Terri’s shed on booze and his uncle’s meds. In the hands of a hack director these scenes, especially the moment when Heather invites Terri to kiss her, could have come off as false, but Jacobs refuses to force anything and their eventual conclusion is heart-breaking, but totally believable.

The same can be said of the friendship between Terri and Mr Fitzgerald. Both desperately lonely people, the moments with the two of them spending the morning in school on a Saturday are a delight to watch and never once stray into kookiness or schmaltz. Instead we’re left with Terri, Mr Fitzgerald and the others getting on with their lives, having moved on very little from where we found them. But for us, the journey has been a rewarding one.

While Terri is a worthy example of American low-budget indie film-making, Miss Bala is a fantastic advert for Mexican cinema, if not for the country itself.

Miss Bala

Mexico has produced some significant figures in world cinema in the past few years – actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Salma Hayek and directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro are but a few examples. Gerardo Naranjo could soon be joining this elite roll call of talent if Miss Bala is anything to go by.

Laura (model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman) lives with her father and young brother and dreams of one day becoming a beauty queen. She enters the Miss Baja California contest and, after making it through the audition is told to report back the following day.

She’s persuaded by her friend to join her at a local nightclub, but while there Laura bears witness to a brutal massacre by a highly organised and well-equipped drug gang. Managing to make it out alive she goes in search of her friend but cannot find her. To make matters worse she’s told by the contest organisers that she’s out as she failed to report back on time.

When she approaches a local transit cop to ask for his assistance in tracking her down, she inadvertently winds up encountering the very people who perpetrated the slaughter and so undergoes a relentless, terrifying nightmare at the hands of violent gang boss Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández).

Laura’s first task is to drive a car a short distance, park it up and walk away – straightforward enough until she discovers she’s parked it outside the US Embassy and inside the boot are three corpses, including an American DEA agent.

She runs away but is soon tracked down, firstly by drug enforcement agents who are after a phone given to her by Lino and then Lino himself, who agrees to let her father and brother go so long as she starts doing as she’s told. Like a puppet on a string, Laura finds that as she spirals deeper into the pit of oblivion she’s stumbled into she’s increasingly powerless to do anything about it, especially when she discovers that no sides in this grisly drug war are clean.

Even the beauty contest itself isn’t immune from the corrosive effects of corruption, exemplified by Lino when he exerts his considerable influence on its outcome in a twisted display of generosity towards the exhausted, defeated Laura.

Naranjo does a fine job of showing us a glimpse of the enormity of the US-Mexico drug trafficking business through the eyes of one small, insignificant figure and isn’t one to shie-away from fingering the blame as much on the corrupt Mexican police and drug agencies as the gangs themselves.

He’s also extremely confident with his use of the camera (ably supported by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély), using a number of long, impressively choreographed takes, most notably in the explosive set pieces in the nightclub and during a pitch street fight between police and the gang.

A uniformly excellent cast is led by the superb Sigman, who commits to the role of an innocent young woman left numb by forces she barely understands.

An urgent, thrilling work, Miss Bala is a visceral punch to the gut and one of the finest films of the festival.