The most mellow press conference at Cannes 2002 was for Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People."I don't think we have a chance at winning the Palm D'Or, so I'm not even thinking of it," Winterbottom said, conceding that a chaotic, anarchic rock'n'roll movie, however successful, would never be awarded a prestigious jury prize. "This film was not conceived to crack the international market," said the star, Steve Coogan. "If it has only parochial appeal or crosses the ocean. . . Whatever."
I'm pleased to say that 24 Hour Party People, my favorite film in Cannes competition, has made it to our side of the Atlantic. It's one cool recreation of the crazy life and manic times of Tony Wilson, who, in the Sex Pistols 1970s, conceived, and vigorously promoted, the legendary Manchester club scene. He managed Joy Division and New Order, started up Factory Records, etc. "I grew up in a period of Margaret Thatcher, a mean time," said the screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce. "I wanted to pay Tony back for making my teenage life a little better."
The movie traces Wilson's musical adventures and misfires from the mid-70s in to the 90s, what he terms "the dawn of punk to the death of acid." Winterbottom: "Part of the reason we wanted to shoot in Manchester was that we were desperate to get out of Canada, where I was making The Claim. We decided to use the real music and brilliant archive footage from the period. I didn't have such a close connection with the music. If we got the atmosphere of the club scene correct, it's because people were around who could correct me.
"We met Tony at the beginning and he told us lots of anecdotes, then Frank went to work on the script. It would be narrated by Tony, a kind of unreliable narrator."
A sort of British "Murray the K," Wilson is played wonderfully in the movie by actor-comedian, Coogan, huge on England's telly for his character of chat-show host, Alan Partridge. Coogan and Wilson joined Winterbottom in Cannes for the film's world premiere. "I told Tony there'd be 70% of Tony Wilson in my performance, 30% of me," Coogan explained at the press conference. "It's not a faithful take."
"To be played by Steve Coogan, a comic genius, is immensely flattering," said Wilson. "I have no problem with the film...even if it's deeply unfair and destroyed my private life... Everything in it is just one big fucking lie. They implied they'd use me as a narrative link. I only discovered at the seventh draft they planned to take the piss out of me."
Is Tony Wilson trying to destroy the movie? Not really. He's just being Tony being typically outrageous. That's the he's always talked: running his clubs, hosting TV talk shows.
Someone asked him the secret of his middle-aged robust health. "About twelve years ago, I started going out with Miss UK, or whatever the fuck title she was. I don't know if sex with a young woman keeps you young, but it keeps you happy."
Hours later, I conversed with Wilson down on the Cannes beach, when, at a party, he graciously left a circle of intense admirers to answer my questions. He's a talker, going on merrily as raindrops splattered on both him and my open notebook, laughing about bringing a group to my USA in the 1980s ("Happy Mondays is one of the 50 great bands of all time") and being treated "like I was offering a dog turd."
Wison: "I've often remarked how bad films are about youth culture. Almost Famous? Crap! It just didn't get it, I don't know why. Since I'm very old, [though I act] about 24 years old, I remember the 60s, and Easy Rider and Performance captured those 60s moments, maybe because they didn't tackle the music head on. Normally, you get at things best from an oblique view.
"I'm less stupid and egotistical and also less heroic than the movie makes me out to be. Steve plays me as a pretentious brat, but people tell me I was a pretentious brat, always quoting Proust. I do talk about art history, semiotics, religion and philosophy. I don't talk about postmodernism because nobody has ever been able to tell me what it is."
He's really read Proust? "All of it. It's my favorite book by far. People don't read it because it takes 82 pages for Marcel to be put in bed and kissed good night."