God made man in his own image, and he looks exactly like music maven Tony Wilson. At least that's what Wilson saw when the Almighty appeared to dispense some sage advice. Such is the weird and wonderful world of 24 Hour Party People, director Michael Winterbottom's 2002 biography-cum-mockumentary. With the improbably witty and disarmingly charming Steve Coogan in the lead role of Wilson, the film takes us on a surreal and poignantly realistic tour of 1970s and 80s Manchester, UK, indiscriminately blending fact and fiction to mythologize the rise and fall of Wilson's revolutionary punk music label — er... "experiment in human nature" — Factory Records.
After head-banging his way through a poorly attended performance by the then-unknown Sex Pistols, Wilson, enraptured by the uniqueness of the genre, sets out to release punk rock upon an unsuspecting populace. With a properly anti-establishment contract policy in hand — written in blood, no less — he leverages his outsized popularity as a television personality to quickly sign promising local talent, including the Happy Mondays, New Order, and Joy Division. What follows is a sobering drug-and-alcohol-fueled portrayal of the excesses of fame, interspersed with sketches of Wilson's winningly absurd existential monologues about himself and his business and glued together by (blessedly short) clips of period concert footage. While the enterprise ultimately costs Wilson his first wife and his career, the character's optimism and Coogan's effortless charisma defy our tendency towards pity.
The pithy metaphor of the "wheel" of life comes through prominently, first shouted by a vagrant on a sidewalk and repeated later by Wilson in an amusingly self-important fashion: "Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away." It's the closest thing this stubbornly unconventional film has to a message, and its honesty grounds the extravagantly materialistic goings-on with a healthy dose of perspective.