Modern Masterpiece: 20 Years Of 24 Hour Party People

2022 marks 20 years of 24 Hour Party People, but also 20 years of a curious evolution of postmodernism in British cinema, finds Neil Fox

Earlier this year, while finishing a book on music films I rewatched 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom, Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Steve Coogan’s tribute to Tony Wilson and Manchester from 2002. I was writing about how the form of the music documentary had permeated narrative cinema, both fictional and that rooted in the biographies of known musicians and bands. Revisiting 24 Hour Party People I was struck by how unusual, thrilling, funny and postmodern the film is. It felt like a true heir to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night as a film that cinematically captures a moment of musical history while also being an incisive, playful and layered piece of filmmaking.

In true Factory Records fashion this piece marks the twentieth anniversary of 24 Hour Party People, seven months late. Similarly inspired by the single-minded and obstinate record label and its boss this, piece is not really or not just about the film but about postmodernism and its place (or lack of it) in British cinema, and a small memorial to Paul Ryder of the Happy Mondays who died earlier this year and who appears in the film in a key role.

24 Hour Party People has often been described as postmodern, and most of the commentary upon release chimed with generic ideas of what was considered postmodern film at the time. The film’s deft humour, its mixture of formal ideas and approaches, its breaking of the fourth wall and its loose approach to linear and chronological time. But it was in service of something beyond a funny, hip piece of ephemera. Critics missed what a lot of people missed about Tony Wilson, that the film captures eloquently: his heart.

20 years later, the film remains a singular work in British pop cinema, its idiosyncratic approach seemingly only fitting to its similarly idiosyncratic subject(s). Very little has since pushed the postmodern envelope – indeed, prior to this, Britain’s relationship to postmodernism in film was lacking in comparison to the US, but there is a fascinating tradition that 24 Hour Party People is in conversation with. The film that has the closest kinship to this Winterbottom/Coogan collaboration is another Winterbottom/Coogan release, 2005’s A Cock and Bull Story. And not merely because the ‘real’ Tony Wilson appears in it as himself, interviewing Steve Coogan playing a version of his ‘real’ self.

Tony Wilson was a postmodern figure. He infiltrated capitalist spaces with a rakish charm and a rebellious streak, believing in the power of art to nearly the same degree he believed in self-narrativisation and mythology. He believed music could change the world, or more specifically, he believed Manchester music could change the world. After seeing the Sex Pistols he didn’t move to London or try and find bands like them, he instead looked around him for the Manchester version. The film captures that moment, the legendary Free Trade Hall show, in a delirious blend of reconstruction intercut with archive footage. It’s a trick the film repeats at key moments at just the right moments.

The film shows the importance of specific moments in Wilson’s life in late 1970s, early 1980s Manchester. In addition to showing us, he also tells us, in the form of Coogan as Wilson, sometimes narrating over the film and sometimes talking directly to camera. We are invited to invest in the story, even as we are invited to suspect the facts. At one point, Wilson says his wife had sex with the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto, a fact repudiated by Devoto himself instantly, appearing in the film as a handily placed toilet cleaner. It’s an unstable film, bristling with excited and uncontainable energy, knowing the whole story is too big to capture and knowing that the whole thing laboriously laid out would dilute its power. This energy is in part down to the film’s aesthetic, a grainy hand-held camera that often gets up close and constantly moves. The film was the last feature shot by the great Robby Müller before he died. So often connected to the sweeping sun-drenched and neon shimmering vistas of Paris, Texas or the monochromatic lushness of Dead Man here he conjures a grimy, nostalgic, local aesthetic through low-grade video that recalls the regional television where Wilson plied his trade, paid his mortgage and perfected his ideologies.

Müller’s ability to make the televisual cinematic is remarkable, the film capturing in its digital grain the urgency of participants finding meaning in music, and the pace at which they moved through Manchester and their lives and careers. The choice to make the film feel televisual, and in particular ‘local’, highlights its postmodern tendencies of aligning form and content, image and meaning, in ways that recalls Linda Hutcheon’s defence of the postmodern, in her 1989 book The Politics of Postmodernism, as a site of both complicity – with capitalism, modernism, societal structures and the feature film form itself – and critique. Critique that doesn’t just ridicule or poke fun, but unsettles existing ideas and interrogates complexity. Hutcheon also writes of postmodern texts as potentially paratexts – ways of understanding connected texts; in this case music – and as parodies. Hutcheon sees parodies as using the shapes of other forms to create conversations, not merely as vehicles for poking fun or highlighting absurdity. 24 Hour Party People certainly pokes fun and highlights absurdity, but also seeks ways of acknowledging the cultural vitality and importance of Factory Records, Wilson, and Manchester in this period.

That is the key in terms of defining postmodern cinema. It is formally inventive and daring cinema, though not merely, if at all, in service of laughs. It’s highlighting deeper thematic truths and drawing attention to film as a vehicle for such truths. Meaning is impossible. Nevertheless, while Winterbottom’s film feels like a British outlier during a period where many American mainstream films were (sometimes intelligently, sometimes naively) labelled postmodern, it is by no means the first British film to be considered such. Among the reasons that 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night is still regarded as a milestone British film is that the director Richard Lester innately understood the power of cinema to convey the essence of the Beatles. His merging of the band’s everyday activities as they exploded culturally captured the bizarre banality of their unique position, and he found inventive ways to capture a zeitgeist in ways that are still parodied endlessly. Lester arguably created the first modern music film and its first parody at the same time. While his politics showed up more in Help! the year after, as well as the likes of The Knack…and How to Get It (1965), The Bed Sitting Room (1969) and How I Won The War (1967), his incredible work in the 1960s created a template for how to merge fun and formal dexterity with profundity, that sadly few followed.

In Lester’s films, the formal disruptions have multiple functions including questioning the intention of the medium itself, as well as some Brechtian distancing techniques and Godard-ian agitprop sequences. Released in 1976, John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum is one of the triumphs of British postmodern cinema. The film starts off as a funny critique of observational cinema before turning into something more unsettling as time fractures and Smith’s narrator is revealed to be manipulating events that were seemingly unfolding naturally before the camera in much more jarring ways. The Girl Chewing Gum is part of an incomplete retrospective of Smith’s work currently screening on MUBI in the UK. MUBI recently showcased an emerging filmmaker whose work echoes the work of Smith, Ayo Akingbade. Akingbade has made a number of short films so far including last year’s Fire In My Belly and Claudette’s Star from 2019, and cites Abbas Kiarostami – a formidable postmodern filmmaker – as an influence, and has shown across her work an interest in destabilising the film form in order to convey her stories of Black experience.

While Smith and Akingbade are known for their short film work, there is a key British filmmaker working in longer form whose films are indicative of this idea of the postmodern as a site of complicity and critique: Joanna Hogg. In Hogg’s work the form is always front and centre, in the celluloid of 2019’s The Souvenir or the digital of Exhibition from 2013, and more profoundly in her blend of the personal and the fictitious, her ability to craft multi-toned sequences across single, long, static takes, and the way she picks at her own social class and its privileges while creating accessible characters with universal struggles around identity, trauma and relationships. Her work is formally daring and intelligent, and is part of a tradition that includes Andrew Kötting, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. In last year’s The Souvenir: Part II Hogg doesn’t make a sequel to The Souvenir, but a paratext. She invites the audience to watch as she wrestles with her own life and filmmaking practice, by introducing into her protagonist Julie’s student film journey the filming of moments and memories already seen in the first film. The Souvenir: Part II is an unstable film, a slippery object, where a filmmaker remakes their actual student graduate film, the film that precedes the one we are watching and their own life and memories. All in one. It’s intoxicating, recalling one of modern American cinema’s great postmodern innovators, Charlie Kaufman and his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York from 2008.

The sense of being taken along a narrative journey in The Souvenir: Part II where nostalgia, hauntology, personal biography and cultural critique are all present, and jostling is a feeling keenly felt when revisiting 24 Hour Party People. At one point in The Souvenir: Part II, Julie’s director mentor (played by Richard Ayoade) asks her, “Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?” It’s a great question, and one that 24 Hour Party People answers ferociously. There’s a tacit acknowledgement in the vast blend of tones, moments, characters and storylines that the past can never be rendered accurately – and where would be the fun in that, anyway. So many postmodern films do the obvious, and reduce the potential of the approach to spoofery. In 24 Hour Party People, fun is a key component. In the film, Wilson recounts how he was forced through a combination of local and financial factors to allow drug dealers the run of The Haçienda. The most prominent dealer in the film is fictional, but played by Happy Mondays’ bassist Paul Ryder, brother of Shaun, and portrayed in the film as an absolute rascal of a human being.

Ryder died earlier this year of heart complications caused by diabetes, and in the film he is playing a part, but not really acting. He’s just Paul Ryder pretending to be a drug dealer, a role the film suggests – and one Ryder never disputed – is close to his real life. This blurring of the fact and fiction of Ryder’s life, compounded by his limited ability and/or refusal to act a role, stands as an example of what the film does beautifully. Ryder’s moments on screen provide knowing moments for knowing audiences, and create an unstable viewing experience where what is real becomes not only unknowable, but unnecessary. At one point, regarding something that didn’t make the final film, Coogan as Wilson claims, “I’m sure it will be on the DVD.” A phrase that both dates the film, but also acknowledges the inherent impossibility of capturing something in an artwork. By refusing to play the game, Tony Wilson and his collaborators captured a cultural moment on vinyl, on posters and on a dancefloor. By refusing to play the hagiographic game, Winterbottom and his collaborators recaptured that moment cinematically, made something fun, beautiful and formally inventive, and created a chaos of tones that doesn’t feel disjointed. It’s the point of the film.

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