Here’s the real deal in a rock movie. It’s a fractured fever dream that looks at the British music scene through the drug-glazed eyes of Tony Wilson, played with hurricane force and bruising wit by Steve Coogan. Remember the name. Brits know Coogan as the chat-show host Alan Partridge, a character he plays for laughs on the local telly. Most Yanks don’t know him at all, but we will after this. Calling Coogan’s performance dynamite doesn’t do him or the movie justice. Wilson is the Manchester TV journalist who founded Factory Records after his first look at the Sex Pistols in a dingy club, circa 1976. “There were thirty-odd people there,” says Wilson, addressing the camera, “but how many people were at the Last Supper?”
Energized by the anarchy of punk, Wilson and his chums Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) and Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine) sign up such bands as Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Joy Division, later called New Order after lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) hanged himself. Wilson didn’t believe in contracts. He went broke doling out artistic freedom and turning a warehouse into a club called The Hacienda, where he indulged in every sex, drugs and rock & roll excess — his marriage to Lindsay (splendid Shirley Henderson) was an early casualty — until the fantasy ended in 1992. 24 Hour Party People could have been a cautionary fable about demon rock. But director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce — Manchester lads just like Wilson and Coogan — make bloody sure it isn’t. Winterbottom — free of the grim literary constraints of Jude and The Claim — seems to enjoy running fast and loose. Shot on digital video by brilliant cinematographer Robby Muller, the movie really is a blast, mixing newsreel footage with the made-up stuff, throwing in celebrity cameos (including one by Wilson himself), and skewering whatever bull gets in its way. Like the music, the film is outspoken, roaringly funny, defiantly sexual and relentlessly in your face. I couldn’t have liked it more.