A Party of One

Tony Wilson, narrator and protagonist of the fictionalized documentary 24 Hour Party People, is a hard man to pin down. Club owner, record label boss, self-proclaimed "serious journalist," daring entrepreneur, terrible businessman, style guru, buffoon, manipulator, facilitator, wide-eyed fan: He's here and he's there, a creature of contradiction. The people around him, when grasping for the essence of his character -- his pith -- seem drawn to a common theme. "Wilson, you cunt," calls someone in a nightclub line as our man swishes by. Once inside, he will be loomed over by the bitter and pale-eyed singer of a local band, who confides, "You're a cunt, Wilson." And later -- hours and years later -- a boozed-up business partner, his face low and red over a bar, gets right down to it. "The problem with you, Tony," he explains, "is you don't know what you are. I know what you are." (He has it now, the truth like a stunned fish in his drunkard's grasp.) "You're a cunt." "Ah, well," says the ever-affable Wilson. "See, I knew that already."

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People is the story of Wilson's adventures in his hometown of Manchester, England, over a period of about 15 years and through two convulsive culture shifts: punk rock and the dance age. Wilson is played by the British comedian Steve Coogan, a genius of bathos and a failure specialist who captures -- as no one else could -- the never-ending deflations of this voluble, mythomaniac figure. The film is tricksy, insiderish and self-aware, hopping from set piece to set piece, incorporating addresses to the camera and discussions about which cut scenes will make it onto the dvd version. But all in all, this does no more than reflect the sensibility of its hero, a local television personality who quotes Boethius while presenting Wheel of Fortune. As one of the 42 people (and he keeps reminding us about this) in the audience for the Sex Pistols' first Manchester show, Wilson experienced the primal fire of punk rock. A velvet fop in flares and a scarf, he was scorched to his soul -- he took the flame within his body, so to speak, and resolved to shed its leaping light upon the world. His show on local television had already given him a certain amount of cultural clout, and to this he added a nightclub and an independent label, Factory Records, dedicated to Manchester's homegrown talent. Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays -- Wilson rode the cycles of popular music for the next two decades, now up, now down, now flush with money, now feebly wandering his own almost-empty club. In the palace of his mind, however, he was always at the epicenter of events.

Joy Division was by far Factory's greatest band. Ruinous and history-haunted, its music at that time ran deeper than anyone else's. "Where figures from the past stand tall / And mocking voices ring the hall ..." It was the sound of collapse, of approaching barbarism -- from it rose the odor of the sacked temple. The forces it loosed were dangerous, and Winterbottom shows a special awareness of this: One sequence in 24 Hour Party People has the band playing "Transmission" to an audience being taken over by shoving, power-mad skinheads. Bald heads bob and glisten around knots of violent movement, the music rises heedlessly and singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris, in a fearsome performance) suffers a seizure. Back in the dressing room, to keep us grounded, Winterbottom shows us bassist Peter Hook rifling through the pockets of his still-twitching singer. "He's got my fags!" Hook says. As Wilson bustles backstage, a journalist tries to corner him by asking about the Nazi origins of the name Joy Division, to which Wilson huffs with intellectual scorn. "Are you not aware of situationalism?" he asks. "Postmodernism? Haven't you heard of the free play of signs and signifiers?" On the floor, Curtis is still having his fit.

"The good are attracted by Men's perceptions / And think not for themselves," wrote William Blake. As a man with ideas, Wilson has a strange amount of power. The musicians around him are, by and large, putty-faced youths, frowning and smoking and awaiting direction. Mutely, with slight truculence, like dogs being washed, they submit to his conceits, as when he dresses up his pet band, A Certain Ratio, in the style of failed big-game hunters: khaki shorts, epaulets. Slapping handfuls of fake tan onto grotty Mancunian shins, Wilson briskly recites, "It's sunshine ... it's health ... it's funk." (Like that of all true hustlers, his patter is largely autohypnotic, meant to beguile his own ear before any other. Near the end of the film, one has the sudden impression that Wilson has been talking to himself all along.) Wilson's old-fashioned belief in the power of the idea is what appears to separate him from his fellow scene makers, and it entrains their suspicion. In this resides his cuntishness, if you will. Reality, even at its most bewilderingly intractable, can always be worked over with a concept or two. "Take it all in," Wilson encourages a journalist as they stand over the open casket of Curtis, who killed himself. "This is the musical equivalent of Che Guevara!" The journalist, mumbling and distraught, makes a quick exit.

24 Hour Party People thrives on this noisy clash of tones. The appalling endstop of Curtis' suicide, on the eve of an American tour, is rendered by Winterbottom as a sort of failure of humor. "The stupid bloody bugger!" says Wilson when he hears that the singer has hanged himself. Curtis is seen going home, putting on the kettle, sitting down in front of the TV and -- suddenly -- his great, serious shoes are dangling at the top of the frame, swinging back and forth over a half-finished baby's bottle. It's shockingly, deliberately clumsy. And in the film's second act, with the arrival of the shambling, bingeing, free-associating Happy Mondays, this clumsiness becomes its own form of grace. "Shaun Ryder, on a good day, is as good as W.B. Yeats on an average day," opines Wilson high-mindedly of the Mondays' lead singer, the man who, given methadone to ease his heroin habit, simply doubled his intake of opiates.

When he signed the beat-crazed, drug-friendly Happy Mondays to Factory, Wilson got himself a front-row seat on the next phase of British culture: rave. His club, the Hacienda, was suddenly packed -- bouncing, a sea of raised arms -- with everyone swapping the telltale stare of chemical ignition. But the Mondays were actually Factory's waterloo. Phenomenally successful, they were also mad kings of low living who snorted, smoked and otherwise ingested the little company's budget in a matter of months. Added to the expense of maintaining the Hacienda -- which made no money selling drinks because everyone was on ecstasy -- the Mondays' antics put Factory under. The Boethian wheel turned, the gyre widened, and Wilson found himself labelless and clubless. The party was over. Having officially signed away his bands (the original Factory contract, signed in his own blood, stipulated that he should have no rights over the musicians' work), Wilson was left, gloriously, with nothing at all.

As a film about music, 24 Hour Party People excels. If the bands mentioned above mean anything to you, you will experience it as a time-intensified buzz, a wrestling in the guts between nostalgia and arousal. If not, it can be appreciated as a pure study of personality: the tale of a man with energy running through his fingers, power lines and chains of coincidence -- a man who kept things moving by letting them all go. Scuttling, grandiose and deluded, Wilson has the last and longest laugh.