Falling somewhere between the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury and This Is Spinal Tap, Winterbottom's doc-like comedy/drama chronicles 16 years of the music scene in Manchester, England, from the moment the Pistols played their first gig in town (with an audience of 42) to the closing of the legendary nightclub the Hacienda. It's all seen through the eyes of TV host and self-made impresario Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), who not only founded the Hacienda but also created Factory Records and signed the bands Joy Division and Happy Mondays.
The film focuses primarily on the two separate Manchester scenes during this era: the late-'70s post-punk scene with Joy Division and its doomed singer Ian Curtis at the helm, and the late '80s ecstacy-fueled club scene with Happy Mondays and their drug-addled frontman Shaun Ryder its poster boys. It's a fascinating look at a city, popular music, and pop culture itself in transition.
Unfortunately, like the surprisingly similar Hollywood documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, the film only skates over so many enticing facts and characters, as the events are all funneled through Tony Wilson's personal experiences. So just as the documentary on Robert Evans spends more time on his relationship with Hollywood footnote Ali MacGraw instead of how Chinatown was made, so too does Party People linger too much on Wilson – an amusing character, but of little interest to those outside Manchester – and his marital woes, his cocaine problem, etc., instead of exploring how the surviving members of Joy Division came to become New Order and what the Mondays' scene was all about beyond Shaun Ryder's hooliganism.
Actor Sean Harris is so intriguing in his portrayal of the doomed Ian Curtis that frankly I wish 24 Hour Party People was all about the rise and fall of Joy Division rather than the rise and fall and rise again (ala Robert Evans!) of Tony Wilson. Still, Winterbottom crafts a canny you-are-there atmosphere, with no small help from the great cinematographer Robbie Müller. See the film if you're a fan of the music.