Rock movies, from ”A Hard Day’s Night” to ”Sid & Nancy,” have usually been fables, tales of feisty rebels who bring a new, cathartic pulse to the world, the authorities be damned. But Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People bounces to a different groove. It’s a scrappy pop docudrama that’s as mod, odd, and ironic as its subject – the urban-dance-squad demimonde of Manchester, England, during the late ’70s and ’80s, when bands like Joy Division, Happy Mondays, and New Order fused the garage nihilism of punk with a new kind of funky, industrial beat-box reverie, generating the birth of rave culture. This may be the first rock movie that isn’t really about a band, or even a movement, but a scene, a vibe, and the cultish buzz that attended it.
The movie’s hero, tongue-in-cheek tour guide, and only remotely fleshed-out character is Tony Wilson (played by the British comedian Steve Coogan), who spearheaded the scene as both a nightclub entrepreneur and cofounder of Factory Records. Tony, we learn, was a minor television personality up until the fateful evening of June 4, 1976, when, along with 40 other people, he witnessed the Sex Pistols’ debut performance in Manchester. Winterbottom re-creates this eureka moment with you-are-there finesse, but, like just about every other scene in ”24 Hour Party People,” it’s dominated by Tony, a tall, supercilious, and charmingly self-deprecating windbag who speaks, at times, directly into the camera, nattering and declaiming in the slightly wacked put-on manner of a Monty Python news reporter.
It’s through Tony that we meet the members of Joy Division, notably lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris), who performs the bouncy misanthropic anthem ”Love Will Tear Us Apart” with a charismatically uptight stage presence – he snaps his fingers like a military robot having a seizure – that makes David Byrne look mellow. This is easily the best part of the movie, and Curtis’ aura of mad, damaged urgency has a lot to do with it. Then, right on the verge of an American tour, he commits suicide. Gazing at Curtis as he lies in an open coffin, Tony, in his mock-grandiloquent way, declares, ”This is the musical equivalent of Che Guevara,” a comment that the movie appears to regard as transcendent praise.
The members of Joy Division recover from Curtis’ death, but ”24 Hour Party People” never quite does. It’s baffling, and revealing, that when the group reorganizes as New Order, who made some of the most rhapsodic music of the Manchester scene, Winterbottom all but ignores their career. Perversely, it’s as if he doesn’t trust the passion of great songs like ”Blue Monday”; he’s happier lingering on the arch detachment of the babbling Tony. At one point, we’re told that in Manchester, ”the white man” finally got up and danced, but that will come as news to anyone who ever saw ”Saturday Night Fever.” What Tony really means is that in Manchester, the hip white geek finally got up and danced. ”24 Hour Party People” is an insider nostalgia trip for graying art punks. It could have been called ”When We Were Cool,” and it’s finally so cool that it freezes you out.