A few years ago, I read a biography of the late Bill Hicks. Despite knowing from the off what the ending was likely to be (I mean, it’s hinted at pretty strongly by that “the late” part) the last chapter left me inconsolable. The impossibly cruel timing of his impossibly premature death, just as his career was starting to take off after years of toil in relative anonymity, hit me like a kick to the stomach.
See also: Control.
I really, really have to be in the right mood before I’ll sit down in front of a movie I know is going to be a bit of a tough watch. That’s the reason why American History X was on the shelf for the better part of two years before even getting its shrinkwrap removed, it’s the reason why I’ve seen Magnolia a grand total of three times despite it being one of my five favourite movies and it’s the reason why I hadn’t watched Control even though a chum had leant me the DVD an embarassing number of months ago, well before before I conceived the notion of the grand folly for which there really must be a better name than The Great DVD Project.
Suggestions on a postcard to the usual address.
I’d already hung on to the film for a shamefully long time so slotting it in down the order in its “correct” place (between Constantine and Coraline, as it goes) wasn’t really an option. So before I could start grinding away precious hours of my brief mortal span in earnest I had to clear the decks, and that meant manning up, sitting down and watching a film that I really wanted to see about a band that I absolutely love.
I’m pathetic, honestly.
To my complete non-surprise, Control is a terrific piece of work. The quote on the box reads “The coolest British movie of 2007″, and it’s hard to imagine a review that could be more misleading whilst remaining more-or-less factually accurate. “Love, laughs and lessons in life set to a foot-tapping eighties soundtrack”, maybe. The phrase “a cool British film” makes me think of brashness and glamour and excitement, of beautiful people and sharp clothes and snappy dialogue. It makes me think of Velvet Goldmine or The Italian Job, basically.
Control is pretty much the opposite of The Italian Job.
Watching it is like listening to I Remember Nothing – it’s fragile and beautiful but relentlessly oppressive, a slow shuffle to breaking point punctuated by moments of frustrated anguish and rage.
I can apppreciate why that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
In a film filled with strong performances Sam Riley’s central turn as Ian Curtis stands out as something special, awkward and delicate and haunted and deeply, deeply sad. It’s a portrayal of an obviously troubled young man that’s carefully understated yet completely magnetic. Every time he was on-screen I genuinely had a hard time looking anywhere else. As the film goes on the sense of Curtis being ground down by the pressures of the world and by his own failings and frailties grows and grows until tragedy is unavoidable.
Joy Division’s music greatly aids the depiction of its singer’s mental and social disintegration of course, but the reverse is also true. Love Will Tear Us Apart is now so overplayed it’s become a cliché but when it’s used here, when it’s placed against context of Ian and Debbie Curtis’ marriage falling to pieces the song suddenly regains all the meaning and emotional impact that familiarity stole from it. The sweetness and heartbreak of it come rushing in all over again.
If you need a better recommendation to see Control than “it’ll make you hear arguably the greatest pop song ever written like it’s the first time”, consult your GP immediately.
Fantastic as Control is, it did cause me a problem – specifically, being wide awake at 1am on Easter Saturday having just been pretty thoroughly bummed out (ooh-er Matron, etc). However, an obvious solution did suggest itself – I was now free to begin my ascent of Mount Pointless Distraction. So what was at the top of the pile? A Better Tomorrow? 300? 28 Days Later?
Nope. 24 Hour Party People, the 2002 biopic of former Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. Or to put it another way, the other film that prominently features a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Joy Division.
Damn you synchronicity my old nemesis, once again you have defeated me!
Now, on a good day with a following wind my taste in music lags about three years behind the cool kids. On most days it’s closer to ten years behind the weird kids that get sniggered at almost behind their backs. Every single significant musical movement of my teenage years passed by with barely a nod in my direction, and the rise of Madchester was absolutely no exception. While schoolfriends were getting into the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses I was busy developing a mild obsession with absolutely Godawful American perm-rock that’s been more embarassing and difficult to get rid of than a cold sore. A year or so later a mate who worked at the local games shop leant me his record collection for the last weekend before he moved away to Romford and kickstarted a passion for mid-eighties goth that would heroically shepherd me through the shoegaze, grebo, grunge and Britpop eras without the slightest threat of credibility. My parents bought me my first CD player for my 17th birthday in late 1992, giving me the ideal opportunity to restart my music collection and carry out a Stalinist purge of the Roxette albums and dad-rock best-ofs that were my first flirtations with pop in my early teens.
I digress. Massively and self-indulgently. Here’s the point – if you’ve slogged through the last couple of paragraphs you’ll have no problem believing that when I first watched 24 Hour Party People I had no idea who Tony Wilson was, beyond being that bloke with the floppy hair and incredibly smug manner who’d appear infrequently on ITV as an all-purpose frontcreature. Finding out that he was the bloke who’d discovered Joy Division was surreal and a bit disorientating – it was like hearing for the first time that teatime TV demigod Bob Holness had been the saxophone player on Baker Street.
Except, you know. True.
24 Hour Party People does two difficult things incredibly well. Firstly, it manages to portray Tony Wilson as one of the single most irritating, difficult, grandiloquent men in the history of pop music without making him seem unsympathetic. In this respect, casting Steve Coogan was a stroke of genius. After all, he’s made a career out of coaxing reluctant affection from audiences for characters who are deluded, massively monomanaical and generally reprehensible. There’s certainly more than a pinch of Alan Partridge in this version of Wilson, most obviously when he almost pulls out of creating the first Factory night because the club owner’s name is too similar to his own (“There’ll be Tony 1 and Tony 2. Can you not see how that’s a problem? Straight away there’s a hierarchy“). Like Partridge, Wilson’s intial success and inevitable downfall are both rooted in his overweening ambition. Like Partridge, most of the time we’re laughing at him rather than with him. Like Partridge, there’s something about Wilson’s Quixotic tilting at windmills, his repeated refusal to accept his own limitations or the status quo, that makes him oddly but genuinely appealing.
My favourite moment in the film comes when Tony Wilson is at his lowest ebb, just he’s left by his first wife and Ian Curtis has committed suicide. Walking down a Manchester street he’s accosted by a homeless man (played by the ninth Doctor) quoting a 6th century Christian philosopher:
BOETHIUS: It’s my belief that history is a wheel. “Inconsistency is my very essence,” says the wheel. “Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope – the worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.”
Coogan’s delivery of the reply – a silent beat then “I know” – is wonderful. It’s both arrogant and vulnerable, both funny and heartbreaking. This is Tony Wilson’s moment of doubt on the cross and in two words you learn everything you need to know about him as a character.
To quote Wilson himself, though, he is a minor character in his own story. 24 Hour Party People is primarily a film about music, about musicians and the about their environment. This is the second difficult thing that it gets right – it makes Manchester circa 1979-1990 seem a genuinely exciting place. The film isn’t really interested in getting the facts right – often, it openly and gleefully deviates from historical events. What it’s interested in is getting the mood right. And it succeeds. From the first Joy Division gig (“The intro doesn’t normally go on this long, I think our singer’s in the toilet”) to the exhilarating, strangely moving last night of the Haçienda there’s a great sense of place and a greater sense of something new and revolutionary being created.
If you had no specific knowledge of either Control or 24 Hour Party People you might expect it to be tedious and /or tough to watch the same tragic story twice in quick succession. You would be completely wrong. The two movies compliment each other brilliantly – they could, in fact, almost be seen as companion pieces. Control is a eulogy. It’s grim and grey and grounded, intently focussed on the characters of Ian and Debbie Curtis. 24 Hour Party People is a celebration. It’s light and arch and vivid and completely, gloriously all over the shop. Both films are utterly fantastic.
24 Hour Party People