Bookended by the careers of the sullen Joy Division and the hedonistic Happy Mondays, the story of Manchester's Factory Records would seem, in defiance of the traditional rise-and-fall arc, to begin in misery and end in celebration. That's ironic, but not as ironic as might be expected. The center of Manchester recording from the late '70s through the early '90s, the best candidate for the cradle of British dance culture (thanks to its accompanying club), and the home to an innovative, artist-friendly approach to business, Factory burned itself out, but it burned brightly. Directed by the always impressive, seldom predictable Michael Winterbottom (The Claim, Wonderland), the Factory saga 24 Hour Party People opens with a sequence that quickly reveals its intentions to avoid the familiar. The year is 1976, and future Factory founder Tony Wilson (played in a witty, revelatory performance by British comic Steve Coogan) is working as a TV presenter. His report on the new sport of hang-gliding spills over into a monologue on the scene's Icarus-like implications for the story that follows. It's a case of form following content, and the rest of the film subscribes to a similar cut-and-paste aesthetic, regularly peeking behind the fourth wall as Coogan becomes both a clubland impresario and the driving force behind Joy Division and its doomed, soon-to-be-iconic lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris, in an appropriately internal performance). Ups and downs follow in the years after Curtis' suicide, and Party People is the first to acknowledge and revel in its own shapelessness. It's too large a story to tell any other way, with too many players and too great an ego at the center to allow room for them all. Even without the confused post-punk milieu, Coogan's man-of-contradictions would seem to demand the approach. Prone to mentioning his Cambridge education while covering stories of dwarves who bathe elephants at the Chester zoo, he's an unlikely rock hero, but the film makes him into one anyway. Working from a script by frequent collaborator and fellow Mancunian Frank Cottrell Boyce, Winterbottom and cinematographer Robby Müller take an innovative approach to digital video, fracturing Wilson's career into a funny, unexpectedly inspiring story of excess, poor choices, and unwavering high-mindedness, all tied to that quintessential bit of rock wisdom: Icarus did fall, but first he flew.
More from The A.V. Club