Few people could take partying as seriously as Tony Wilson and live to tell about it. Partying was a religion, even politics. It was the anarchic alternative to and subversion of the deadening existence of economically depressed Manchester, England. Wilson saw this truth after witnessing with 41 others a "historic" performance by the Sex Pistols on June 4, 1976. His benighted city, he believed, would become the modern equivalent of Renaissance Florence. And to usher in that golden age, he spent the next 16 years as the musical entrepreneur responsible, among other endeavors, for Factory Records, the collectivist home of such bands as Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays. He also founded the Hacienda, Britainís answer to Studio 54, and helped make "Madchester" synonymous with cutting-edge rock, revolutionary hedonism, Ecstasy-laced raves, kamikaze finances, and self-destructive megalomania.
As Wilson himself might put it, this scene is a "historic" saga and a challenge to any filmmaker ó not just because of its scope and complexity but because most of those involved were psychotic, suicidal, drug-addicted, unreliable, and possessed by genius and are now dead. Michael Winterbottom, whose repertoire (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, The Claim) has been as uneven as it has been ambitious, meets the challenge with a sloppy, sardonic integrity and an exhausting whimsy. He and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce embrace the limitations and absurdities of their project, achieving a Behind the Music as dreamed up by Monty Python ó besotted, hilarious, incoherent, solipsistic, and deeply sad.
In short, they reduce the story to the rambling and unreliable memoirs of Wilson himself, who as depicted by British comic Steve Coogan fittingly resembles Eric Idle ó crossed perhaps with George Sanders. The Pythonesque qualities come through especially when Wilson is performing his day job as a broadcaster for Granada TV. There, on his show So It Goes, he engages in such stunts as hang-gliding and interviewing midget circus attendants when he isnít giving air time to bands like the Clash ó all the while complaining that heís a Cambridge graduate and an important journalist who should be covering this important period in human history. Thatís when he decides that maybe he should be making history himself.
Cooganís Wilson makes a funny if suffocating host to his own life, a hip David Frost bringing to his account, as he points out himself in his condescending commentary, postmodernist irony and self-reflexivity. Direct address to the camera is his standard technique, and he chides us if we do not catch his references to Icarus or semiotics. But he also acknowledges his lapses, allowing the personages depicted screen time to give their version of events, and apologizing when the narrative leaves out such details as his second marriage and his child. The purpose of this Brechtian overkill, he insists, is to make a film not about his life but about "the music."
In fact, the music is mostly background to Wilsonís megalomania and Winterbottomís stylistic pratfalls. The bands get a little lost in Wilsonís enjoyment of them and Winterbottomís attempt to evoke their spirit. Winterbottom does capture the gestation of Joy Division, perhaps the greatest of the Factory bands, as the mad studio genius Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) guides them in their layered recording of such incantatory anthems as "Sheís Lost Control." And the splashy montage of the degenerate tour-bus antics of Happy Mondays (whose song provides the filmís title) proves a corrective to the rose-colored reveries of Almost Famous.
On the other hand, Wilson is literally not at home when Joy Divisionís lead singer and songwriter, 23-year-old Ian Curtis (Sean Harris), hangs himself. (Winterbottom has Curtisís feet dangling before a TV screen showing the suicide scene in Werner Herzogís Stroczek, as if the circumstances of Curtisís own death were not sufficiently cinematic.) At moments like this, it seems the film might have been focused on the wrong party person. Say what you will, however, Wilson had the philosophy needed to survive (he still works for Granada TV) long enough to write his own history. Among his many pedantic asides are references to William Blakeís road of excess, which leads to the palace of wisdom and Boethiusís wheel of fortune, whose essence is inconsistency. Winterbottomís film remains true to these two ideals: excessive and inconsistent, it attains a kind of wisdom.