24 Hour Party People
dir. Michael Winterbottom

Now playing at the Metro.

Some 15 years after it began, the "Madchester" era is one of the most undeservingly maligned musical periods. From the mid-1980s to 1994, when the Stone Roses put out their second and final album, the bands of Manchester, England (including Inspiral Carpets, the Charlatans, James, and phew, the Farm, even), generated a legacy that still fuels the creativity of today's artists.

I've been an awestruck lover of the Happy Mondays since their Hallelujah EP (featuring guest backing vocalists Rowetta and Kirsty MacColl) came out--but even though I realized 24 Hour Party People took its title from a song on the Mondays' John Cale-produced debut, I missed the film when it played at SIFF. An unforgivable crime, in retrospect. What I didn't realize until I actually saw the movie was that it wasn't about the Mondays, Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, or New Order per se. It's about the creation of a scene and one of the main figures behind it: Tony Wilson, a television journalist who loved music.

24 Hour Party People begins, prophetically, with Wilson attending a Sex Pistols show in 1976. With him in the audience is a pogo-ing Steve Diggle (of the Buzzcocks), Mick Hucknall (the future singer of Simply Red), and members of the Stiff Kittens, a band that would eventually become known as Joy Division. That scene is reason enough for any music lover to see the film, simply because it shows how one band inspired a bunch of musicians to form bands that sounded nothing like the Sex Pistols, but pushed them into the limelight nonetheless.

The film speeds forward to years later, when Wilson and his pal Alan Erasmus meet band manager Rob Gretton and form Factory Records. With his own blood, Wilson signs a contract with Joy Division. The audience knows that union will end in tears with singer Ian Curtis' suicide, but another laudable aspect of 24 Hour Party People (prior to Curtis' swinging-feet scene) is its portrayal of the way performance anxiety triggers panic attacks that can manifest themselves in epileptic seizures--proving it was not just fear and a broken heart that led Curtis to hang himself.

In 1982, Wilson opens the famous Manchester club the Hacienda (which I used to read about steadily in British publications). It's at a battle-of-the-bands event at the club that Wilson takes note of the Happy Mondays, and though the film doesn't do an exemplary job with the band's story, it makes one very important point: More than any other band of the Madchester era, the Mondays influenced a wave that spawned musical genres that continue to this day. Brits have always embraced pivotal trends and artists before musicians in the U.S. could see what's begging to bite them on the nose (the Rolling Stones and the Jam, to name only two examples). Brothers Shaun and Paul Ryder of the Mondays took note of Chicago's house-beat movement almost the moment it began, then stole it and fused it with Brit-pop and Northern soul. (Arguably, Shaun, with his drug-addled chants and staggering dance style, may just have been the U.K.'s first rap artist.)

Hallelujah was followed by 1990's Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches, which featured a song titled "Kinky Afro" that sampled Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." Pills 'n' Thrills fueled the Ecstasy rave culture and opened the doors for acid house and trip-hop (which breathed life into early DJ-led bands like 808 State, Massive Attack, and Portishead, and even influenced jungle bands like A Guy Called Gerald). In his book Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds called the Mondays the U.K.'s answer to the Butthole Surfers, but more accurately pointed out that they were generally considered the first band since the Sex Pistols to match their predecessors' aura of working-class hooliganism.

I could go on for days about all that came afterward, but what I'm really trying to say is that 24 Hour Party People is less about Manchester's bands than it is about the culture, making it a tiny but important history lesson for all kinds of music fans, and a must-see.

by Kathleen Wilson