'Party' rocks around the clock

Rap and hip-hop rule today's pop music, but once upon a time British mavericks blazed rock's most exciting trails.

"24 Hour Party People" chronicles the rise and fall of the Manchester, England, music scene, which launched the punk craze in the mid-'70s and then galloped through a wild series of follow-up trends including new wave, rave, and styles nobody managed to pin a label on.

It's not a perfect movie, but it's the smartest excursion into pop culture in recent memory. It also has the best star performance I've seen this year – by English actor Steve Coogan, who plays Antony Wilson, real-life owner of Factory Records and the Hacienda, a legendary Manchester nightclub.

Mr. Coogan and the movie were enthusiastically received at the Cannes film festival, along with Michael Winterbottom, who directed the picture using digital-video technology that gives it an appropriately grainy, shot-from-the-hip look. It also allowed for spontaneity from the actors, who were encouraged to follow their instincts as the cameras rolled.

The other key contributor was screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, whose script avoids the twin pitfalls of picayune detail on one side, and movie-style mythmaking on the other.

"Rock fans are nerdy, scholarly people who enjoy talking about the B sides of obscure records," he said at Cannes. "I wasn't interested in ... anything like that. I wanted to celebrate the achievements of Factory Records, and the truth of what happened is much more extravagant and funny than anything I could have made up."

Extravagant and funny it is, and also quite dark at times, especially when Manchester's growing drug scene brings violence to the Hacienda and its habitués.

This is the film's least original aspect, but it injects a note of inescapable reality into a picture that might otherwise have partied too much for its own good.

The story begins when Wilson, a TV reporter, discovers the Sex Pistols at a concert – he's almost alone in the audience – and sees a rock 'n' roll revolution in the making. Putting all available energy into his new record label, he signs up a string of innovative bands, using the Hacienda to promote them.

When his burgeoning success brings a buy-out offer from a larger company, we learn that capitalism was hardly on his mind – quite the opposite. With his anything-goes mentality, he never established legal proprietorship of his own enterprise.

He can't sell out to the establishment, for the simple reason that he has nothing to sell!

Wilson is a larger-than-life figure – his nonstop patter dominated the Cannes press parley for the film – and Coogan's portrayal of him is the picture's most impressive asset.

Winterbottom keeps the movie hopping in other respects too, peppering it with MTV-style camera work and an unpredictable blitz of logos and taglines. These trendy touches may attract young moviegoers who see the Sex Pistols era as ancient history.

The movie has found a solid audience in England, but at Cannes the filmmakers acknowledged the US market may be harder to crack – because of the story's British setting, and because Coogan isn't already known to Americans.

Whatever happens at the box office, "24 Hour Party People" is a jaunty addition to the roster of first-rate rock'n'roll movies, which began in the '50s with "The Girl Can't Help It" and has continued in pictures as different as "The Buddy Holly Story" and "What's Love Got To Do With It."

It also confirms Winterbottom as one of today's most versatile directors, able to move from literary adaptations such as "Jude" and "The Claim" to timely dramas like "Welcome to Sarajevo."

Like the eccentric impresario at the center of his new movie, he puts more stake in energy and creativity than in commercialism. His films vary in quality, but this time he definitely rocks around the clock.

• R for sex, drugs, and violence.

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