Recently I went with some friends to see the movie 24 Hour Party People, a giddy chronicle of the legendary Factory record label and its main instigator, Tony Wilson. As a film, it was most definitely entertaining and funny, largely due to Steve Coogan's portrayal of Mr. Wilson -- wisecracking, camera-addressing and generally larger-than-life. But naturally my primary interest in seeing this movie was due to the music.
And I was completely engrossed with the musical and historical aspects of the first half of the film, which focuses on the rise of the post-punk Manchester music scene. A landmark Sex Pistols show is shown as the catalyst for the formation of labels and bands alike, as our protagonist/narrator proceeds to ID some notable audience members, including the future members of Joy Division. The Buzzcocks are also represented (briefly), although they, like other influential post-punk Mancunian bands that did not record for Factory, are largely ignored in the overall narrative. Yes, I know this is the story of Factory and not the Manchester music scene, but when the only nod to The Fall is a tiny cameo by Mark E. Smith himself as a club-goer (credited as "Punter" -- heh)... let's just say that some additional context would have been welcome.
However, much in the way that the story of the label is told through the antics of Tony Wilson, the story of the music is largely driven by the force of two bands: Joy Division, in the first half, and Happy Mondays, in the second. We get just enough of Joy Division's story to see how integral they were to the label's early success, but not enough to fully explain some scenes, in particular the brief and minimal lead-up to Ian Curtis's suicide. Later I provided a bit more background to my friends about Ian Curtis's life leading up to that event -- the frequent epileptic seizures, his extramarital affair and drug overdose/initial suicide attempt. (See this excellent band history for more.) Regardless, the performance scenes are positively riveting, successfully recreating the charged, hypnotic atmosphere of their live shows -- which, admittedly, I've only ever been able to experience via the live tracks on Still and any of the many Joy Division bootlegs in existence.
After Curtis's suicide, the first half of the movie ends on a quiet, hopeful note, as we see the remaining members of Joy Division -- now New Order -- in rehearsal working on "Blue Monday" which, as the narration points out, will end up being the biggest-selling 12" single ever. Good storytelling, but bad history, since "Blue Monday" was the band's fifth single, released almost three years after the formation of New Order. I'd have preferred a more natural (though subtler) transition that would have instead shown the band working on "Ceremony," which had been a Joy Division song that they'd only had the opportunity to perform once, at what would happen to be the final JD show. I do understand that would have required more backstory, plus the filmmakers wouldn't have been able to switch the mood as easily from despair to success by cutting to tens of thousands of fans cheering New Order in some huge stadium.
Moving into the second act, the movie picks up the pace to tell the story of Happy Mondays and Factory's Hacienda club, which became the nexus of the subsequent "Madchester" music scene. Much in the way that the film skimmed over the general post-punk scene, we get a quick-cut montage of club flyers, NME covers and dancing crowds to represent all of the other Manchester bands that were associated with that scene or came to prominence at that time. And the omissions here are even more egregious than in the first half since not only were a number of the other bands (notably The Stone Roses) at least as popular as the Mondays, but others (The Railway Children, James) actually recorded for Factory!
The musical nitpicking from here on ceases, though, as I don't particularly care for Happy Mondays and their ilk. (Need I tell you I that my Manchester band of choice in the 80's was The Smiths? There's a clever little reference to them in the film as the band that Tony Wilson should have -- but didn't -- sign.) So I was able to enjoy the story of yet another rise-and-fall cycle for Factory based on more outrageously entertaining moments of excess, especially near the very end.
As we left the theater to the pulsating sounds of New Order, I was already doing a mental scan of my record collection, considering which Factory records I could pull out and listen to later. I'd already checked out the movie soundtrack, which is half classics I already own (Joy Division/New Order/Buzzcocks/The Clash/Sex Pistols), half later-period Factory I don't own and don't particularly care to (Happy Mondays, et al). What I needed was to refresh my ears with some of the early, more obscure Factory recordings, as well as some of the overlooked mid-period releases that got somewhat lost in the Acid House shuffle.
Prompted by one of my moviegoing companions, I've started compiling my own personal Factory primer that will highlight some of the music and bands that were overlooked in the film but are nonetheless essential to the Factory story. I'll be posting a little more about that sometime in the next day or two, as the conclusion (as it were) of my 24 Hour Party People experience...Posted by nstop at September 10, 2002 01:18 AM