Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.
I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.
No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.