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Ziggy Stardust

24 Hour Party People will likely flop in the United States, which is as unfortunate as it is understandable. Director Michael Winterbottom’s loose (or should I say baggy?) history of the Manchester postpunk scene, Factory Records, the Hacienda, and prime mover Tony Wilson is smart, buoyant, and frequently hilarious. It’s also smug, insidery, and willfully obscure. What’s rave culture? Who’s Vini Reilly? Where’s Rhyl? You might well ask.

If the name Tony Wilson means nothing to you, you’ll probably find 24 Hour Party People confounding. Still, the movie is sufficiently entertaining to justify doing a little advance research. Here’s a quick study guide:

Tony Wilson was (and is) a playfully pretentious reporter and host for Granada TV, a regional channel based in…

Manchester, the north-of-England gritty city that produced such world-beating (or at least London-beating) acts as…

Joy Division, the influential death-disco postpunk band that, after lead singer Ian Curtis’ 1980 suicide, became…

New Order, a slightly more upbeat death-disco postpunk band that scored a bunch of dance-club hits (even in the United States) and opened the door for…

Happy Mondays, a dumber, rowdier, more obviously drug-addled band that self-destructed spectacularly, in the process bankrupting…

Factory Records, the impeccably art-directed, never-profitable, fundamentally anarchist label—sort of a cross between Dischord and the court of Louis XIV—that was co-founded by…

Tony Wilson, who also created the Hacienda nightclub, birthplace of the psychedelic neodisco music known as “acid house,” “rave,” and a dozen other terms.

These who do see 24 Hour Party People will be hearing Wilson’s name a lot, because the movie is narrated by the art-punk impresario (played with unflagging brio by British TV comedian Steve Coogan) and interspersed with re-creations of his soft-news reports for Granada. The puckish anti-mogul even speaks directly to the camera to warn that the script—by frequent Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce—is “full of lies,” and that if you don’t understand his references to the classics and situationism “you should probably read more.” As invented here, Wilson is (to use American counterparts) part David Letterman, part Greil Marcus, and part John Sinclair. Given its release-schedule proximity to The Kid Stays in the Picture, the movie also suggests a comparison between Wilson and Robert Evans, except that the former brought forth “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” not Love Story.

Stunned by the Manchester debut of the Sex Pistols, whose 42-person audience includes just about everyone who is to matter to the city’s music scene for the next 20 years, Wilson begins hosting punk bands—most of them banned by the BBC—on Granada. Soon, he and friend and fellow dope connoisseur Alan Erasmus (Lennie James) start a Factory night (named for Warhol’s studio and Manchester’s industrial heritage) at a sleazy club, and then the label. Their pal Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine) becomes manager of Joy Division/New Order, and later the man most willing to challenge Wilson’s profligate style—even while allowing his own clients to spend two years in Ibiza taking Ecstasy and making an album that fails to save Factory. Other disruptive influences include Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), the unstable “genius” who helps devise Joy Division’s sound and then returns to do the same for Happy Mondays (“Oh, fuck no,” says Wilson when he learns that Hannett is back), and, of course, head Mondays Shaun and Paul Ryder (Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell), introduced while exultantly poisoning hundreds of pigeons.

In broad outline, much of the story is true, but Boyce is careful to accentuate the fibs. When Wilson finds wife Lindsay Wilson (Shirley Henderson) shagging original Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) in a toilet stall, the real Devoto appears onscreen to deny that the incident occurred. Ian Curtis’ death is cued, aptly but impossibly, to a TV broadcast of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. As for the scene in which God appears to tell Wilson “it’s a pity you didn’t sign the Smiths,” that very well might be true. Anyone who can cite Boethius while hosting Wheel of Fortune deserves a medieval-style visitation.

Winterbottom, a highly inconsistent director who likes to redefine his style with each film, here goes for an urban-myth vibe, as if telling a story that’s too good not to be true. He encouraged the actors to improvise—”I sometimes wondered if they were still shooting or we were just having a drink,” Coogan has said—and had cinematographer Robby Muller shoot handheld digital video in long takes that are visual counterparts to Coogan’s rambling yarns. Add snippets of 49 songs and asides both verbal and visual, and the result is both epic and anecdotal—the history of Manchester in the late 20th century as told by a pot smoker.

Ironically, 24 Hour Party People is as likely to offend those who revere Joy Division and the Durutti Column as it is to mystify those who’ve never heard of them. For once, though, Winterbottom dispenses the self-congratulatory tone that undermined such films as Welcome to Sarajevo and Wonderland. People who can accept the Manchester scene as simultaneously very important and wildly ridiculous should be swept away, or at least along, by this garrulous romp.

Just three years before the Sex Pistols roiled Manchester, David Bowie played his last show in his Ziggy Stardust persona. Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop director D.A. Pennebaker was at the July 1973 London concert, hired to shoot the event and produce a 30-minute film for a new RCA video-disc format. Impressed by Bowie’s charisma and the audience’s adoration, Pennebaker edited a 90-minute version for theatrical release. Instead, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars got a one-time showing on ABC-TV—which bleeped the many references to “death” and “suicide”—and then went to video with what Pennebaker has called “not very good sound.”

Now with audio remixed by Tony Visconti, the movie is at last getting some big-screen bookings, flukishly coinciding with the release of Bowie’s best-received album in years. It’s an interesting document, and a pretty good show, but no preparation for the Pistols’ rage or Joy Division’s gloom. Bowie may have sung about death and suicide, but what’s striking about the show today is how often he smiles.

Lo-tech by today’s rock-operatic standards, the concert involves lots of costume changes, some red spotlights, and not too much else. Bowie’s look combines Kabuki makeup and flowing Japanese robes with a few items from misses’ sportswear. The songs are epic in scope but short in length—obviously a crucial prototype for British punk—and Mick Ronson plays guitar like a less experimental (but faster) Jeff Beck. Although the band performs “White Light/White Heat”—which a curiously vulnerable Bowie introduces as the work of Lou Reed, who “I think is a friend of mine”—the Spiders are mired in mid-’60s blues-rock. No wonder he had to break up the band.

Pennebaker enlisted four other camera operators to help him shoot the concert, so the film doesn’t lack vantage points. The audience isn’t lighted or miked, however, as is typical in more recent rock-show docs. As a result, when Bowie unexpectedly declares, “This is the last show we’ll ever do,” the announcement seems to fall flat. And what’s the point of a rock ‘n’ roll suicide if you can’t see the survivors’ reactions? CP