Photo by John Shard

OF ALL THE BAND NAMES IN ROCK & ROLL HISTORY, Joy Division is perhaps the most evocatively sinister. (In Nazi Germany, the “joy divisions” were the “special sections” in which pureblooded Aryan women were kept to service Gestapo and SS officers, ostensibly in the interest of propagating the Master Race.) The group, and particularly its lead singer and songwriter, Ian Curtis, were like a sexless, uptight version of the Doors — had the Doors lived in English council housing rather than on Venice Beach. Curtis' voice boomed in a mournful, off-key approximation of Jim Morrison's, but he wouldn't have dreamed of dropping his pants onstage or asking anyone to light his fire. Even when he danced, he kept his elbows high and his arms tight to his sides, as if terrified that someone might touch him. Letting go just wasn't his style.

In one of the most revealing scenes in 24 Hour Party People, director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce's witty, imaginative re-creation of the music scene, circa 1976­-92, that gave birth to Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, the Durutti Column, New Order and the Happy Mondays, among others, in Manchester, England, we see Curtis (Sean Harris) visiting the home of Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) on a gray, overcast day. Wilson is out, but Lindsey (Shirley Henderson), his attractive wife, is in. Moreover, she's “got a spliff going.” Lindsey offers Curtis a toke, but he turns it down, mutters goodbye and trudges off by himself back into the dreary street. He's isolation personified. Close your eyes and you can almost hear Morrison's voice on the soundtrack, whispering the lyrics to the great Joy Division song Curtis never wrote: “People are strange, when you're a stranger/
Faces look ugly, when you're alone . . .”

Had that encounter taken place in the 1960s, Curtis and Lindsey would probably have been inside each other's flared pants before they'd managed three puffs on the joint between them. But this is 1980, and the mood is grim, despite the fact that Joy Division is one of the best new bands in Britain and about to tour the U.S. for the first time. In the next scene, we see Curtis alone in his conventional suburban home, which is about as far removed from the typical chick-friendly rock-star pad as you could imagine. He's watching the famous hypnotized-chicken scene in Stroszek, Werner Herzog's film about three naifs who emigrate to the U.S., on television. It's one of Herzog's lightest films, and possibly the only funny one, but Curtis hangs himself in the middle of it. No one knows — or, at any rate, says — why.

“You're joking!” Wilson says when someone tells him the news. “He's dead? What a stupid bloody bugger.” But with Curtis' sickly, commanding presence gone, Manchester's decadelong party could begin. It was goodbye to Joy Division and hello to New Order, the Happy Mondays, Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark, acid rock, rave culture, Ecstasy, the Hacienda Club, and dancing and drugging and melting into warm puddles of love all night long. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives,” Wilson announces in one of his numerous asides to the camera. “Well, this is Manchester, and we do things differently here. This is the Second Act.”

24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE IS A FAR FROM COMPLETELY satisfying film, in part because there isn't a single character in it who is explored in depth. But then this is a film with a big subject and a broad canvas, and there just isn't time to dwell on each and every personality involved. The tale being told is that of the Rise and Fall of Factory Records, and Wilson, who functions as both protagonist and chorus, is at the center of it. How much you like the film will depend heavily on whether you find him clever and charming, or one-dimensional and shallow. His throwaway one-liners (“Jazz is the last refuge of the untalented,” “Shaun [Ryder]'s lyrics on a good day are on a par with W.B. Yeats' on an average day”) are often funny but not, in the end, terribly illuminating.

It may also depend on your tolerance for rave culture. Because the journey the film charts — from the Sex Pistols' gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 to the last night of Wilson's legendary Hacienda Club in 1992 — is one that begins with angry social protest (“Anarchy in the U.K.”) and ends with thousands of Ecstasy-fueled dancers shedding brain cells along with the pounds in the sweaty “mecca of rave culture” that was “Madchester.” All sorts of musicians and bands come and go along the way (add Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees to those already mentioned), but the trend with each passing year is back toward traditional rock & roll mindlessness. So by the time we reach Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) and the Happy Mondays on their tour bus, complete with the stereotypical allotment of groupies and white powder, we could be watching a film about any one of literally hundreds of rock bands. There's no longer a sense of connection between the music and the society it emerged from, as there was earlier in the film; it's just a lot of musicians getting fucked up in their millionaire's rock & roll bubble.

But ultimately the journey, rather than the destination, is the point. And this is where the film is so effective. Shot on digital video by Robby Müller, best known for his work with Wim Wenders and Lars von Trier, the swirling hand-held camera work is sometimes sick-making, but more often mesmerizing. You get a real sense of what it was like to hang out at these clubs, to have someone bobbing up and down to the music in front of you while, say, a neofascist sketched a drunken Nazi salute somewhere in the periphery of your vision. It's as though we were watching someone's blurry, impressionistic memory of the scenes, rather than the scenes themselves.

The acting is uniformly excellent. As the doomed, enigmatic Curtis, Sean Harris is chillingly good, and Andy Serkis almost matches him as genius producer Martin Hannett, who becomes so bloated from drugs and alcohol that the gravediggers have to dig an extra-large space for his plus-size coffin. In the end, though, it's Wilson's film. As portrayed by the British comedian Steve Coogan, well-known to British television audiences (and a few local devotees of BBC America) for his work on I'm Alan Partridge, he's one of those wry, oddly distant people who galvanizes others and generates passion all around him while seeming to feel little deeply himself. His comment as he stands next to Curtis' open coffin — “That is the musical equivalent of Che Guevara” — sounds like a press release. And yet no one could say he wasn't idealistic or that he didn't help make something extraordinary, and without ever trying to profit from it himself. By keeping his day job as a presenter for Granada Television — doing everything from interviewing dwarfs, to test-driving hang gliders, to hosting The Wheel of Fortune (with a typical sense of style, he kicks the show off with a quotation, picked up earlier from a drunk in the street, from Boethius) — he manages to separate his financial from his creative self and run a record company without a trace of self-interest.

The famous contract he signed with his bands, written in his own blood and granting them total artistic freedom (he never owned the rights to their music), was at once an act of genius and of jaw-dropping folly. Still, you can't help wondering how much any of it really meant to him. Wilson is both in the thick of things and eternally above the fray, and, ultimately, his unflappable cool creates a distancing effect in the viewer as well. But even at a distance, the movie's a rave and a half.

24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE | Directed by MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM | Written by FRANK COTTRELL BOYCE | Released by United Artists | At Laemmle Sunset 5, Laemmle Santa Monica and Laemmle Playhouse 7

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