dir: Michael Winterbottom
[img_assist|nid=1047|title=I remember what it used to be like, going to gigs *sigh*|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
It's like this film was based on a book written by a Kurt Vonnegut born in the sixties who got to see the glorious birth of punk first hand. It's a fractured, glorious shambles of a film. It doesn't always work, and I had major issues with the second half of the film, but, Jesus, what a ride.
Steve Coogan had made a career out of playing a character that Tony Wilson was the template for way before this film was ever conceived of. Anyone who's ever seen any episodes of Knowing Me Knowing
You with Alan Partridge would know the only real difference between Alan Partridge and Tony Wilson is the wig. It seems fittingly appropriate that he end up playing him for real. You have to ask yourself whether the film is about what it purports to be about: Manchester and the incredible importance it played in the growth of two major scenes in contemporary music.
Wilson himself: erudite, arrogant, Cambridge educated, slumming intellectual resorting to being a television reporter, the scenesters's scenester, hedonistic and passionate, and a consummate liar. My biggest laugh and a moment that summarises Wilson completely is when his wife catches him on the receiving end of a
professional blowjob and he says empathically "Lindsay, it's not what it looks like!" Now THAT is a bullshit
artist par excellence.
The moment that follows on later with Howard De Voto (an actor) having sex with his wife, when Howard De Voto (himself) appears saying something like "I don't remember this happening at all" is priceless, where we get into the nature of truth versus legends. And those were certainly legendary times. I wanted more, more
MORE! A legend like De Voto, apart from having been in The Buzzcocks formed the immensely influential Magazine: this was the best story they could tell about him? I'm being selfish, I know.
As portrayed Wilson is utterly clueless when it comes to money, completely the opposite of a professional businessman, the rise and fall of Factory Records and the Hacienda are represented, despite the number of people involved in the enterprises, as being extensions of Wilson's fortunes and faults. Their negative and positive aspects were present in Wilson's personality. Trust, self-delusion, passion, incompetence, hope and self-destruction, a potent and dangerous mix by any estimation. But look at what it gave us. Only the people who lived through it or came to love the music can judge whether it was all worth it or not. Someone whose musical knowledge only stretches as far back as the last Sean P Diddy Puff Daddy Dumb Diddly Um Coombs single probably won't have a single solitary clue about any of this.
We get to watch the rise of the Factory empire first hand (well sorta). The film appropriately starts off at the seminal Sex Pistols gig in Manchester in '76, where there may have only been 42 people in the crowd, but every single one of them, in the words of Wilson, "will go on to do incredible things". We see the rise of Joy Division, the influences, the live insanity, and their eventual association with the rising skinhead movement. Sean Harris, as Ian Curtis, is spookily reminiscent, both in that haunted gaze and especially in the insane dancing as seen in the clip for "She's Lost Control". Watching this band trying to replicate Joy Division in their short lived prime gave me goosebumps and gave me joy, much much joy.
The reason why this anarchic film works for me is because it hits upon the energy of the era, of the time, which was not, as the film would have you believe, monopolised by Manchester, but for a time it was
certainly concentrated there. That energy given off by a great band playing live is almost impossible to capture on film, but they do so here in all its muddy, shambolic glory. And I love them for it. It represents a scene, a powerfully amazing scene that would send out waves of influence for decades to come at a time before the word "scene" started being used as an insult.
Of course they don't achieve any great depth. Even though we spend some time with Ian Curtis we don't get enough time to get into his head to get any inkling as to what was going on in that crazy skull of his. And Martin Hannett, genius producer (played by Andy Serkis, who is just as unrecognisable here as he is in the Rings films), apparently goes on a vast, downward spiral, which we never find out any reasons for.
It would be asking a bit much, I guess. It is Wilson's film after all. It's meant to be a wild travelogue of a period covering a decade, with a number of signposts and multiple car crash fatalities. You don't get to stay at any one place long enough to really get to know it well, but you certainly get a sense of the journey.
The film has its pitfalls as well. The promo posters for the film, at least in Australia and England, had pictures of Curtis, Ryder and Wilson (or at least the actors playing them), with the words Genius, Poet, Twat respectively above their pictures. I can probably agree with two of those evaluations. But not the third, oh no, not by any stretch of anyone's imagination.
Okay, this is the gist of my problems with the second half of the film. They're purely personal, not much to do with the way the film deals with the subject matter at all. At least a bazillion times our host Tony Wilson keeps telling us that Shaun Ryder is the greatest poet since WB Yeats. Now, personally I don't really know or care that much about WB Yeats. I've heard that he wrote some real purty poetry once upon a time. I remember reading a few of his poems in high school. I think the kid's got a great future.
Be that as it may, everything I've ever learned about the Happy Mondays and Ryder in particular, from years of reading NME and Melody Maker when I was a teenager, and from hearing them on the radio, at
clubs or at parties left me with this enduring impression: Shaun Ryder is a completely tone deaf fuckwit who could not sing in key if you threatened to flush his drug stash down the toilet. The music made by the Mondays may have been remotely tolerable, but the painful caterwauling of head idiot Ryder makes them virtually unlistenable in my anything but humble opinion.
The film essentially puts them on the same level as Joy Division, in that we focus on some of their interactions with Wilson and their various goings-on shenanigans as we did in the first half. Now apart
from the fact that this is blasphemy of the highest order, it isn't as interesting either. Most of the anecdotes related to them are fairly banal; the infamous Barbados trip in order to record the new album, Ryder holding the virtually useless master tapes to ransom at gunpoint, the ridiculous levels of drug abuse and general
stupidity, are not news to me, and they're not really that entertaining. It's possible that my dislike of them rendered me a fundamentally unappreciative audience member.
Other than that the burgeoning of Manchester's acid house scene which led to the evolution of today's rave scene is also something of a dead loss for me. I fucking well hated the music then and I hate it now, with an unholy passion. Someone (Wilson) taking ill-advised and inaccurate credit for the fostering of the scene is
hardly going to endear themselves to me. And the scenes at the Hacienda during the late 80s, laser strafed 3-pounds-for-a-bottle-of water era perfectly captures everything I loathed about that era and
that particular form and style of music. People wearing white clothing standing around or spastically dancing with whistles in their mouths shaking glow sticks in their hands speeding or tripping off their nuts, in sheds with black moisture dripping from the ceiling from the condensed sweat, too loud to talk, too loud to think, too sickening to breath. It makes me angry just thinking about it.
I truly feel that it was a dark age in human history.
Be that as it may, perhaps I'm not the best judge of whether the film's second act works that well. Hearing the quick summary of everything that went wrong with the scene (people stopped drinking alcohol and did drugs instead, the dealers started getting too much influence on the scene, the shootings in the Hacienda) worked well. Perversely it's not as interesting as everything that Tony Wilson himself does or is involved in (away from the Mondays). The death of Martin Hannett is tragic and comic at the same time, considering the anecdotal stories regarding his funeral. And Wilson's personal misfortunes seem to vary from the hilarious
(due to stupidity and coke fuelled madness he ends up fucking up an important interview with Lord Keith in a legendary manner) to the strangely superficial (a scene appears out of nowhere where he visits his sick second wife in hospital, when we had no idea he had another wife, and his child appears for two seconds before we see him in the next scene with Miss UK again). Then, in a perversely contradictory fashion we have Wilson talk directly to camera telling us that the film isn't about him, it's about the era and the music.
Well, I beg to differ. The film is ALL about Tony Wilson, or at least the version of him as portrayed by Coogan. Wilson is more than just the Virgil leading us through Manchester's Inferno, it's more than just seeing it through his eyes. It's his story. Everything else is secondary virtually to his persona and his constant
asides to the audiences. And were he not as affable or entertaining then the film would not work at all. Luckily for me, I loved spending time with him.
One last nitpick is in the use of the people from the era itself. The cameos are a wasted opportunity. Yes, so we've got Mark E Smith, Howard De Voto, Vinnie Reilly and plenty of others showing up, but for what purpose? They do nothing, and are glimpsed for seconds. What was the point?
A glorious mess, but certainly not a film for everyone. My girlfriend hated the film, by the way, the most positive thing she had to say about it was "I guess you had to be there", to which my response was a categorical "Huh?" I was an infant in swaddling clothes when this era sprang forth fully formed from the
hearts, mouths and livers of many talented, mad people (and I'm not talking about your Svengali-esque Tony Wilsons or Malcolm Maclarens). It has to do with a feeling, that feeling you get from music, when it grabs you by the heart and the genitalia and throws you screaming back and forth across the room. If the thought of tapping into that vibe that you felt when you first started going to gigs, that raw magic that still gives you shivers, that feeling that you were part of something big which didn't require you to follow the trend like a cloned sheep or, to quote the film, "Dress like a hairdresser", then this film is for you. I hand this film to
you on a silver platter, with the lines nicely divided up in neat rows as I hand you a rolled up bill 5 pound bill.
If you have to ask "Who are The Clash, what is a Joy Division, who were The Stooges, Siouxsie who and what's a gig?", then not only didn't you understand this review, you probably never read it in the first place.
A fucking glorious mess. But only for devotees, to be sure, to be sure.
8 swinging Ians out of 10
"This scene didn't actually make it to the final cut. I'm sure it'll be on the DVD." - 24 Hour Party People