Dir: Michael Winterbottom. UK. 2001. 110mins.

Anarchic, exasperating and ambitious, Michael Winterbottom's boisterous celebration of 16 rollercoaster years in Manchester's club scene is a real oddball item whose eventual cult status could - like that of the music it portrays - outstrip its commercial performance by miles. A young urban crowd should form the film's most appreciative audience, along with Steve Coogan's army of fans and those with fond memories of the "Madchester" era. Winterbottom's name will help position it internationally, particularly when backed by festival exposure: launched in Cannes last year with a bizarre stunt at which cast members pelted each other with stuffed pigeons, emulating one of the bands, it could make a return trip to the Croisette in May. Further down the line, a sturdy career on DVD and video awaits.

Although some insiders have objected to the brazen liberties taken with facts, 24 Hour Party People has the blessing of a number of real-life individuals, notably record company boss Tony Wilson, who is credited as a "special consultant" and appears as the film's central character and narrator. First discovered kicking his heels as a presenter of soft news trivia for local television in northern England, Wilson (Coogan) is inspired by a 1976 Sex Pistols gig to launch record label Factory, signing Joy Division (whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, kills himself), The Durutti Column and others with a vaguely worded contract scratched in his own blood. Alas, one of his biggest hits, New Order's 1983 hit Blue Monday, loses money on every copy sold, thanks to the expensive record sleeve.

Wilson applies the same uncommercial principles to the Hacienda club, which he opens in 1982. Packed out nightly, it eventually becomes a hotbed of rave and acid house culture, while remaining hopelessly unprofitable except for the protection racketeers and ecstasy sellers on its margins. Meanwhile the voracious chemical appetites of his new proteges, the Happy Mondays, are costing him a fortune. A life-saving deal with a London record label collapses in the early 1990s when it emerges that Factory does not own the rights to any of its music.

These events are narrated in a series of wisecracks and arch asides to the camera by Wilson, a Cambridge graduate who sprinkles his commentary with highbrow references from William Morris to Andy Warhol. "It's all about post-modernism", he says of Joy Division's use of Nazi iconography and the same applies to the film's own knowing, ironic perspective. British audiences will instantly recognise Wilson as a variant on Alan Partridge, the nerdy chat show host who has been Coogan's most successful television creation.

Unlike last year's The Parole Officer (another Partridge type developed by Coogan for the big-screen), Wilson is a fascinating comic character, and the actor, seemingly allowed to improvise extensively, sinks his teeth into him with relish. But a little of Wilson goes a long way and, despite his claim that "This is not about me, this is about the music," he ends up dominating the film at the expense of the other characters.

Party People also loses energy in its second half: there's a sense of history repeating itself, while the Happy Mondays, portrayed as amiable, drug-addled louts, are much less interesting than the tortured and complex Joy Division. Still, the film is always compulsively watchable, thanks to a witty script, Winterbottom's razor-sharp cutting and some sharply etched cameos, including Shirley Henderson as Wilson's feisty first wife, Paddy Considine's band manager and Andy Serkis's mad-genius record producer. A top-flight cinematographer, Robby Mueller, keeps the grainy DV images looking great.

Prod co: Revolution Films
UK dist:
Pathe UK
Int'l sales:
The Works
Andrew Eaton
Gina Carter
Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robby Muller
Prod des:
Mark Tildesley
Trevor Waite
Music supervisor:
Liz Gallacher
Main cast:
Steve Coogan, Lennie James, Shirley Henderson, Paddy Considine, Andy Serkis, Sean Harris, John Simm, Ralf Little