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Friday, 09 January 2009 Written by Henry Midgley

Tony Wilson's life is both eminently filmable and impossibly difficult to film. Lets start with the elements that make his life rather wonderful to film- for a start there is his occupation. Wilson was an impresario, the ring master of the hacienda circus in Manchester, a developer of musical sounds and a talent spotter with a pretty good record. He missed out on the Smiths and Stone Roses- but still managed to manage three of the most important and influential bands in British and probably wider musical history. Furthermore the stories about him have now drifted into the realm of anecdote- for example that with one of his biggest bands, New Order, the sleeve of the album cost more to produce than the price of the album, unfortunately New Order's album sold more than any other that year and from a best selling album, Factory (Wilson's company) made a huge loss. Or there are the stories (probably untrue) of Wilson signing contracts in blood, not actually having contracts with his bands and running the business like a cooperative (true) and sending a leading band off to the Carribean to stop them taking drugs (about as successful as you'd expect). The stories are great- so what's the problem?

The problem with Wilson's life is that it is hard to establish a consistent story- the characters for a start change all the time. Joy Division his first success lasted for a couple of years before their lead singer committed suicide. New Order, Joy Division's successor band, survived for a while afterwards and provide a thread through the period- but other bands, particularly the Happy Mondays, emerged later. Furthermore there were a series of girlfriends- and fitting all these characters into a 90 minute film that also has to include music to convey the excitement of the era makes it difficult for you to get to know anyone in any conceivable film. Furthermore there is a sort of madness- an enjoyable madness about the story, that you have to get involved in in order to understand this story. And any film needs to convey the atmosphere of Britain in that period- miner's strikes, the National Front, the depression of the north of England and the drabness of that era in Britain- part of Wilson's project was one of rejuvenation, changing the nature of Manchester in particular from a city of dark satanic mills to one of throbbing beats.


So a film has to do a lot in order to convey what Tony Wilson was and what he did- it has to capture his unique persona, part intellectual, part businessman, part idealist and part team builder. What this film does is to present the story using Wilson's character as a narrator. Steve Coogan continuously breaks the third wall and talks to the audience- telling us the significance of things and explaining the story. Why are we watching a sex pistol's concert in the seventies in Manchester attended by 42 people- well Coogan's Wilson says that we are watching it because in one corner are Joy Division, in the other the Happy Mondays, and other bands too, Wilson is in the centre with the first girlfriend we see and that was where Manchester music came from. Continuously we get that kind of thing- and Coogan isn't the only one to break the third wall and tell us what is going on- occasionally other characters do it, to tell us they don't remember x or whatever else they have on their mind.

So our thread is Coogan's Wilson and his narration. Our thread is his excitement and vision of Manchester- but that means of course that the figures from each band come in and out of focus. Iain Curtis's suicide for example is treated as something that happened to Wilson rather than as something that happened on its own- the film doesn't really explain why Curtis committed suicide. Occasionally that is frustrating- it is frustrating because if noone else's motivation makes sense- save as part of the whirl of events around Wilson, then it is hard to actually tell why anything is happening. If that's hard to work out, then it is hard to work out what this story is- this film can't tell you why Factory collapsed or even what others saw in Wilson- it just tells you what Wilson saw in Factory and what in Wilson contributed to Factory's collapse.

The wider context of Factory is dealt with well- the transformation of Manchester is demonstrated both by footage from the seventies though the later evolution both of the city and the country is not shown- one might imagine Britain is still where it was. It is not and partly that is due to Tony Wilson. But lets go further: one of the great controversies about Factory is that Joy Division were named after a Nazi concentration camp facility keeping sex slaves for the SS- the film deals with that issue reasonably well (it is there, and doesn't consume the film) but its an issue that goes away, its there for a bit and then fades. Too many of the issues which underlie the film just fade away- as what seems like a film about the way that a record company had a social mission evolves into a film which is about drugs. In a sense, I think what the film makers have done here is started with Wilson's vision and then ended with reality- but not told you or implied that there was any change.

But questions apart- this is a good film. It gets the period. What it also gets more fundementally is what Wilson was trying to do- I would have liked to see more about Manchester (Wilson proclaimed his aim constantly as being the rejuvenation of Manchester the city)- but I think what you do get is his manic energy. I think the other thing that's easy to appreciate is quite how anarchic some of his bands were- some of them thugs with guitars (Joy Division), others druggies with guitars (Happy Mondays). Their talents may have been exceptional- their personalities were exceptional in other ways which made managing them difficult. Only someone with Wilson's peculiar talents could probably have spotted the musical ability and had the streetwise nous and the idealism to manage them. Coogan captures that idealism, its absurdity, and Wilson's tolerant ability to keep a group of people who were quite capable of trying to shoot him one minute and shoot up with him the next together. The look of the period is also captured nicely- there are some psychedelic headlines over various bands which enhance the authenticity if they don't quite work aesthetically. Others can judge better than me about this: and I would have liked more Manchester, but even so they do a reasonable job on the look of the era.

When contemplating the success of a film, you have to try and understand what that film tried to do. I think this film attempts something which is incredibly difficult to do- it is episodic because Wilson's life was episodic (any music promoter's is unless you have a band which lasts for twenty years!)- it is bizarre because Wilson and his colleagues were like that- interrupted by music because it has to be. Coogan gives a good performance though and it captures something of the idealistic and pragmatic- the two qualities which fused together produced Factory and some of the best music of the late 20th Century.