Micheal Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is a film that would probably hold a special place in the heart of anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s during the punk/post-punk/early rave scene in the UK. But more likely, it’ll be enjoyed by younger viewers who only wish that they could’ve been around for it. The film came out in 2002, so its release conveniently coincided with the rise of file-sharing and music blogging, during which countless listeners suddenly had access to music that had been gathering dust in the corners of mainstream culture throughout the 90s. No, no one had forgotten about New Order, but only the loyalest readers of, say, Spin or something, could’ve possibly known who The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, or Happy Mondays were.
That’s not to say that punk rock or dance music had gone completely underground during the late 90s. Rather, their origins and mythologies, along with countless numbers of artists who’d broken new ground and helped define the scenes that gave birth to the music, were in the midst of slowly fading from public consciousness. Maybe it was just too soon for any kind of revival anyway, but even if the time had been right, how could it have even happened without the Internet to help it spread?
As curious listeners scoured the Internet for music new and old, a new musical pantheon of sorts, of which the Boomer generation had paid little notice to, was beginning to establish itself. In the US, you’d have been hard pressed to find many fans of indie rock (Pavement, Modest Mouse, Sebadoh, etc.) who knew or cared about Joy Division. Today, they’re as big of a gateway to “indie” music as The Pixies or Sonic Youth ever were. Furthermore, their brief existence, along with their transition into the much more successful New Order — whom Americans tend to lump into nostalgic “retro 80s” music along with bands like Simple Minds or Siouxsie and the Banshees — broke down barriers between “rock” music and “dance” music that artists are still exploring.
I don’t mean to write a musical thesis here (and what a trite one it would be if I were), or to suggest that I enjoy this film simply because it features a lot of music that I like. To be honest, I’ve actually begun to wonder if the film’s narrative and reliance on its audience’s familiarity/fascination with the scenes it follows is really its undoing. I’ve watched the movie with friends on three separate occasions. The first time (2003?) was with a small group of people who were big fans of indie music. They didn’t seem to follow what was going on and were confused by the narrative structure. The second time was with another friend who hadn’t heard of any of the “Madchester” scene or any of the bands featured in the film. He seemed to enjoy it, but the more we talked about it, the less it seemed that he understood any of it whatsoever. The final time (just a few years ago) was with my girlfriend. Not counting the first three Naruto movies, it’s the only film to date that we’ve watched together that she’s expressed a palpable disdain for.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the movie and trying to pin down exactly what it was that I enjoyed about it. I find its manically-edited, 4th wall-breaking structure, which certainly fits the out-of-control nature of the Manchester music scene during the late 70s to the late 80s, to suit the film and capture the energy of its subject. But what I love most are the characters, especially the protagonist Tony Wilson, whose total devotion to the DIY nature of the movement he finds himself caught up in, to be both hilarious and endearing. This gets to the heart of what I love most about the film, which is a portrait of fandom at its most involved and enthusiastic. Wilson wasn’t a participant in the music scene at the time, but his work presenting the artists he loved on his television show, and later creating a space for them to grow and build a scene out of (The Hacienda) established him as a great appreciator, a fan like so many others but one whose vision of the things he loved actualized into something concrete, recontextualizing the work of so many individual artists and bands into a cohesive movement. Granted, it was a movement that rose out of nowhere seemingly overnight and fell back underground just as quickly, but its influence would change the course of British music for good.
My hope for anyone watching this film for the first time would be that it isn’t viewed in historical terms or even musical terms, but that they would simply try to identify with Wilson’s belief in the movement that he was both building up and barely clinging to at the same time. Not content to passively participate in the music scene as a listener or concertgoer, he had a vision of the scene as something greater than it was and used his influence to bring it to life (much to the detriment of his personal life and career). In many ways, his efforts were a super-sized mirror of what other fandoms have tried to accomplish. Establishing Factory Records as a means to distribute his favorite music could be comparable to how fansubbers brought anime to a greater audience for the last thirty or so years. Opening The Hacienda as a gathering place for both his favorite bands and fellow-minded fans wasn’t much different from how anime and comic conventions sprung up to feed the desires of fans to have an immersive and social experience with their favorite hobby.
In short, I appreciate this movie as a tale of a subculture’s journey from the fringes of society to a fully-blown cultural phenomenon via the naive devotion of one man bold enough (or dumb enough, take your pick) to take something as socially trivial as music made by groups of outcasts very, very seriously. If you have a subculture-dwelling hobby or interest, imagine it suddenly becoming massively popular and acceptable, all due to a massive gamble or two from a small group of people. Maybe then you’ll start to get why this film can be so thrilling for some people, whose passions probably follow a similar track, while being boring and incomprehensible to others (who may still have niche interests, but are content to keep them personal and don’t see the appeal of blowing them up into paradigm-shifting movements for the masses). Again, as the Internet makes connecting with others who have extremely similar interests exponentially easier than ever, it’s easy to forget how hard it used to be for outcasts and misfits to find each other, let alone turn their obsessions into something concrete and bigger than themselves. But once in a great while, it did happen, and it changed the world for good. It’s an illustration of how it’s not always the subject that’s the most interesting thing — be it music, anime, comics, or whatever other hobby you can think of — but the culture that gels around it.
The trailer does do a good job of showcasing the film and summarizing some of my points about it. Too bad it has some of the corniest voiceover work I’ve ever heard.