Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film 24 Hour Party People starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson is really a kind of parable about three personality types represented by three larger-than-life characters: Ian Curtis, Sean Ryder and Tony Wilson. If all this is before your time, you might not know who they are, but hopefully you will at least have heard of Joy Division and The Happy Mondays.
The Madchester rave scene centred around the Hacienda club was the epicentre of an Ecstasy-fueled psychedelic revival hot on the heels of the Acid House revolution of the late Eighties. These were exciting and heady times, drawing comparisons in some quarters to the psychedelic efflorescence of the Sixties. Sadly, however, the revolutionary promise of the second Summer of Love in 1988 dissolved as fast as the first one in 1967. Why?
24 Hour Party People gives a kind of symbolic answer in the three aforementioned figures Ian Curtis, Sean Ryder and Tony Wilson. Ian Curtis famously hanged himself at the tender age of 24; Sean Ryder famously became a crack addict; and Tony Wilson famously closed the Hacienda and disappeared from public view. Is this just an expression of The Wheel of Fortune, a concept brought up several times in the film, most memorably by a homeless beggar under a bridge quoting Boethius? Or are there forces other than luck, fate and fortune at play?
There were countless drugs casualties in the rave generation, just as there were in the hippy generation. Perhaps it was just the result of carelessness. Unlike the Sixties LSD guru Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley was of the view that powerful psychedelic drugs shouldn’t be bandied about willy-nilly but should be taken with due care and reverence if the great promise of spiritual transformation they afford isn’t to descend into mere hedonism.
Ian Curtis was a troubled, angry young man. He was basically a kind of indie-goth-mod-punk on speed. If we had to place him on The Wheel of Babylon, he would probably be a “muppet”. Sean Ryder, on the other hand, childishness notwithstanding, is much more of a straight working class “muggle”. And Tony Wilson, who in the film can’t resist telling people he went to Cambridge and is periodically called a c**t by his proteges, was clearly a bit of a “diva”.
Nobody knows what prompted Ian Curtis to commit suicide, but he clearly experienced some kind of descent via his inner victim to the hell of his inner demons. Sean Ryder, predictably enough, descended from muggle to addict via his inner diva fairly quickly. Tony Wilson, being a journalist, remained a diva pretty consistently throughout.
From Love Will Tear Us Apart to Hallellujah, the glimpses of supernal light from the musical psychedelic beyond failed to break any of them free. It’s like the parable of the sower:
“Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them”
Matthew 13: 3-7