In Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, the great DP Robby Müller starts from a murky place drained of color to represent Manchester, England. But as the film manically evokes the stirrings of punk and rave culture into full-blown "scenes," Müller bleeds in color until you realize the grotty haze has momentarily broken out into bright psychedelia. In telling the story of punk impresario Tony Wilson, the whole picture has this disorienting effect; despite pursuing docudrama with the druggy abstractness of music video, postmodern cinematic asides, and a surface-skimming approach which plays like all trailer and no feature, 24 Hour Party People creeps up on you and manages to leave an impression of its time and place.
The place, colloquially known as "Madchester," and the time (1976-1992) provide the setting for Wilson (Steve Coogan), TV presenter by day and co-founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda Club by night. The film depicts a seminal Sex Pistols concert (attended by a small but soon-to-be influential audience) as the "historic" gateway to a new, anarchic music movement goosed by Wilson, who also hosts a local-TV music showcase. Cambridge-educated Wilson carries on as a testily undervalued journalist, providing intermittent comic fodder through his fluffy field reports as his double-life expands by night. Key bands under Wilson's aegis include Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays, and A Certain Ratio (authentic music is provided, though not lingeringly).
Apparently, Winterbottom cultivated the film's slapdash feel entirely by design, though its tempting to wonder if the film's occasionally affecting episodes weren't achieved by editorial accident. Winterbottom lacks the confident anarchy of an Alex Cox, whose echo travels through the picture; Cox's ingenious postmodernism has the capacity to take root, where Winterbottom's here seems to keep us almost exclusively at arm's length.
Nevertheless, there's a rightness to the anarchic style, and Müller's dizzying, handheld, (mostly) digital camerawork pays certain dividends. The real find is Coogan, known as a comedian and TV presenter in his own right in the U.K. Coogan's laconic style and deadpan takes suit the film's approach, while also hinting that he could have handled more dramatic weight had it interested Winterbottom.
A handful of late scenes effectively bring Wilson's (non-)business model into focus and sum up the film's impact. Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce succumb a bit too easily to cuteness (such as the increasingly-cliched UFO sighting) throughout the film, but when Wilson proffers a blood-signed "contract" to a prospective buyer and says, "We are not really a company. We are an experiment in human nature. I protected myself from the dilemma of selling out by having nothing to sell," you know you've seen something.