Without prior knowledge -- if, say, you graduated from high school without dancing to "Blue Monday" while high on Ecstasy, and poor you -- the film is a whirlwind blur, a kinetic thrill ride through the industrial backwater that was one of punk and post-punk's most fertile Promised Lands: Manchester, home to the likes of the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Joy Division and its post-Curtis incarnation New Order, the Smiths, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Simply Red, and, later, the Charlatans UK and Oasis. Like a rock critic entertaining the uninitiated at a party, the movie drops the needle on the scene and offers by way of "history" a few sound bites -- a pinch of "Love Will Tear Us Apart," a speck of "Ever Fallen in Love" -- and blanks filled in with caricatures rather than characters.
Still, 24 Hour Party People is much more pleasurable if you know who's who and what's what, because Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce have too much fun fudging the facts. They're more concerned with the how and where, not really the why (as in, why did Curtis string himself up?). The truth is in there somewhere, but, as Wilson (played by Britcom star Steve Coogan as though he were Tony Wilson) says, quoting director John Ford, it's far more fun to print the legend. Winterbottom and Boyce serve up a tall tale commingled with random, recognizable "truths," a lovingly barbed history about a glorious period of time unfolding in a miserable place of desolation and decay.
Though Wilson insists he's but a bit player in this story, 24 Hour Party People is his tale from giddy start to dispiriting finish -- the story of how a slightly gawky, thoroughly arrogant but always affable TV talking head ended up booking bands, starting a label, and running a club with the members of New Order. Wilson literally puts himself everywhere, even into places he wasn't (say, the living room of brothers Shawn and Paul Ryder, still years away from recording their first single as Happy Mondays) or incidents that never took place (a bathroom tryst involving Wilson's wife, Lindsay, portrayed by a droll-of-the-eyes Shirley Henderson, and Buzzcocks cofounder Howard Devoto, played by Martin Hancock). In fact, it's scenes like the latter that remind you of what a high-spirited goof this is: As Wilson's walking out of the bathroom, the janitor stops the action to inform the audience this isn't what really happened -- and he ought to know, since the janitor's being played by the real Howard Devoto. (A number of real-life figures appear throughout the film, including Wilson as the fictional Wilson's director.)
24 Hour Party People is the rare rock 'n' roll film to be more concerned with the music than its makers. It's a lovingly assembled mix tape, the soundtrack to a short-lived revolution. But as a consequence, its protagonists, save for Wilson, get short shrift. Curtis (Sean Harris) inhabits the film like a herky-jerky ghost, a shadowy spasm; we know not what drives him, what tortures him, what ruins him. Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is painted as a junkie git; Wilson claims he's a genius -- he likes to compare his wunderkinds to W.B. Yeats -- but for all we know, he's an ill-mannered, off-key wanker.
And producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), who used to utter such inscrutable instructions as "faster, but slower," is rendered as little more than a fat, drunken buffoon -- despite the fact that he, as much as anyone else in the film, defined the sparse, sad, and spooky sound of Manchester from the late 1970s till his heart crapped out on him in 1991.
But only a rock critic could act as nitpicky buzz kill; it's not necessary to have memorized the map to enjoy the journey, captured by cinematographer Robby Müller on digital video so gritty and grainy, it's sometimes hard to tell the archival footage from the new stuff. In the end, it's not so much the sound of "Madchester" captured on film as it is the spirit -- how a place so gloomy could wind up the center of rave culture, how the dreary finally got up and danced. Though it lifts its title from a Happy Mondays song, the movie just as easily recalls a line from Joy Division's "Atrocity Exhibition": "Take my hand and I'll show you what was and will be." The 24-hour party people may be relics of the past, but they still shape the future.