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Crashing the '24 Hour Party'

A terrific DVD documents the vitality of the Manchester music scene in the '70s and '80s.

March 06, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

There's a scene in the superbly entertaining film "24 Hour Party People" where, in 1976, British TV personality Tony Wilson tries to convince his boss that the Sex Pistols are going to redefine pop culture.

Even though only 42 people attended the punk band's first concert the night before in Manchester, Wilson -- played in the film with great flair and fun by Steve Coogan -- labeled the event so historic that he wants to present this new music on television.

But his boss isn't sold.

"How could it be history when only 42 people were at the gig?" he asks in the film, which is now available on DVD.

Replies Wilson: "How many people were at the Last Supper?"

The response is typical of the audacity and humor that made the Cambridge-educated broadcaster (and self-appointed philosopher) the perfect ringmaster for a Manchester music scene that blossomed in the '70s and '80s -- a scene so drug-filled and chaotic that it earned the city the nickname "Madchester."

Wilson was right about the impact of the Pistols on the pop world -- and on Manchester in particular.

Thanks in great part to his leadership in opening a local record label (Factory) and an ambitious dance club (Hacienda), Manchester musicians and fans merged rock culture and disco culture in an easygoing, hippie-like atmosphere that Wilson likened to San Francisco in the early days of the psychedelic movement.

As the film illustrates, the Hacienda felt like the greatest party on Earth -- a place with the vitality but none of the elitism of New York's Studio 54. Music fans, record executives and journalists came from around the world to sample the city's energy.

It's a time that is brilliantly captured in director Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People," the most engaging pop music-related film since "High Fidelity" -- and possibly one of the 10 best ever.

The accompanying soundtrack album, from London Records, is also a wonderfully appealing package, built around tracks by such Manchester bands as New Order, Joy Division and the Happy Mondays.

But both slipped by virtually unnoticed in this country when released last summer. The film barely broke the dismal $1-million mark in box-office receipts, and the album sold fewer than 15,000 copies.

One reason is that the Manchester scene, however thrilling and influential, remained under most people's pop radar screen in this country -- so there was no reason to suspect that "24 Hour Party People" was in any way a must-see.

Joy Division, a band with a dark, obsessive vision, was championed by critics, but lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, before the band made any commercial impact in the U.S. New Order, which rose from the ashes of Joy Division and is best known for its '80s dance club smash "Blue Monday," did have considerable success in this country. But two of the other most prominent groups, the stirring Stone Roses and the zany, uneven Happy Mondays, were little more than cult items here.

The DVD release of "24 Hour Party People" gives U.S. pop fans another chance to catch up on the wonder of Manchester.

Often, films lose dimension and punch in moving from the theater screen to the living room, but this one works better on DVD, partly because of Wilson's witty commentary track.

In it, he disputes the accuracy of some of the film's more outlandish scenes, including one in which his first wife catches him in a compromising position with two prostitutes.

Part of the film's inventiveness is the way it plays liberally with the facts to better reflect the freewheeling spirit of the times.

I met Wilson during a 1990 trip to Manchester, and he seemed partly fact and partly fiction himself -- a businessman and visionary made up of equal parts Donald Trump and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. He loved a good story even if he sometimes stretched the truth to make a point.

"The revolutionary thing about what is happening [here] is that this is the first blue-collar revolution in pop since Elvis in 1956," Wilson said at the time.

"The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols were very middle class. Art college. The old joke is the Beatles' mommies gave them their first guitars; the Manchester groups stole their first guitars."

Later that day, John Squire, guitarist for the Stone Roses, smiled at the joke.

Actually, he said, his first guitar was a Christmas present from his mom. But, he added quickly, the movement really was a blue-collar one.

For years, the Roses paid the rent on their rehearsal room with money from the four members' welfare checks.

For all the vanity of the Wilson character in the film, he always downplayed his role.

"In a sense, I'm like a Charles Dickens hero," Wilson told me in 1990. "All Dickens heroes are complete nonentities who know 217 wacky people. I'm the guy who knows all the wacky people and the creative people. I just stand in the center and explain it to others."

The Manchester scene came tumbling down amid widespread drug use, which attracted a criminal element that brought crippling violence to the Hacienda.

However, Wilson was right. The revolution of Madchester lives on in dance clubs and in punk-inspired bands around the world -- which makes "24 Hour Party People" (the movie and the album) an important and richly engaging document.

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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