`Party People' has catchy beat

September 20, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Theaters showing 24 Hour Party People should be required to have aisles wide enough to dance in. The infectious beat of this one-man comic history of Manchester punk and post-punk music can make the most inhibited cineaste break into a spastic pogo.

The director, Michael Winterbottom, and the screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, concoct a breathless, adrenalized scenario; they chart cutting-edge pop-culture mood swings from 1976 to 1992 while cueing us in to the social and political tumult that fed the work of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays in this blighted spot in northwest England.

The rough-and-ready digital-video look (the renowned Robby Muller did the cinematography) fits the rest of the movie perfectly as it recklessly swerves from mockumentary and performance footage to convulsive blasts of burlesque fantasy.

Most important, with a breakthrough performance from Steve Coogan, the filmmakers bring a charismatic figure to wild life: Tony Wilson - the Manchester TV reporter who moonlighted as the mad, free-form impresario behind Factory Records and the pioneering rave club Hacienda.

Outrageously and hilariously flexible, he's just the fellow to magnetize a story that ranges from the suicide of one character (Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis) to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll euphoria. Wilson, a Cambridge University man, transforms post-modern attitude into uproarious conversation. To him, Happy Mondays' lyricist, Shaun Ryder, is the greatest poet since W.B. Yeats. Arguing that the Sex Pistols' appearance before 42 people at the Free Lesser Trade Hall was monumentally historic, he asks: How many people attended Caesar's assassination?

Wilson is valuable because he sees how popular culture releases imaginative energy in people who don't read Yeats or Plutarch. And Coogan is similar to the late British comic Peter Cook in the way he makes smartness seductive. Whenever Winterbottom and Boyce allow the sprawling narrative to get away from them, they cut to Coogan's Wilson, who pulls it together with, say, a quote from Fitzgerald and an analogy to the Double Helix. Coogan has the heft to contain Wilson's contradictions as hustler and idealist, visionary and clown. Although Wilson acknowledges that Ian Curtis could be seen as a poet of urban desolation, he prefers to recall him merrily singing "Louie, Louie."

Early on, Beatles' manager Brian Epstein becomes a reference point: Wilson wants the Manchester sound to rival Liverpool's in the '60s. What makes this movie an up is that even when its characters are crying for help, they're also crying for Help!

24 Hour Party People

Starring Steve Coogan

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Rated R (strong language, drug use and sexuality)

Released by United Artists/MGM

Time 117 minutes

SUN SCORE: ***1/2

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