Breaking boundaries: 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan

Right from the get-go, you can tell that Michael Winterbottom’s 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE — airing this weekend and all month long on Sundance Channel — is no ordinary biopic. It begins with Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) addressing the camera as he narrates his life. Wilson was a British TV personality who was so taken with the emerging punk and post-punk scene in the 1970s and ’80s that he founded Factory Records, a Manchester-based label that brought the world such notorious bands as the Happy Mondays, Joy Division and New Order. This playful, inventive retelling of his tale intercuts between some of his TV stunts and the key moments of his career, all as he continues to speak directly to us; part of the film’s charm is that Coogan was himself a Wilson-like character at the time. (Already popular among Brits, he enjoyed a tremendous career surge after this role.)

Of course, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE would not be the last time Winterbottom and Coogan collaborated on an offbeat adaptation. In 2005’s TRISTRAM SHANDY, the duo gave us a movie ostensibly based on Laurence Stern’s discursive comic novel. In the book, which is a loose series of anecdotes and observations, the narrator is constantly distracted into offering up his opinions and famously can’t move forward with his plot: He describes his own birth but doesn’t even get to it until Volume 3. The film itself, however, was shot like a documentary about Winterbottom and Coogan’s attempt to make the film. (Needless to say, not unlike the novel’s narrator, they keep getting interrupted.) Riotously funny, the movie was notable for the way that Coogan allowed himself to poke fun at his comic persona: The movie’s version of “Steve Coogan” is a rather unpleasant and unfaithful sort of fellow.

In 2010’s hilarious THE TRIP, Winterbottom and Coogan played off a similar conceit: Coogan and his buddy and fellow comedian Rob Brydon tour Britan’s finest restaurants, chatting away about all manners of topics and aggravating each other to no end. (The film was based on a TV series that also starred the two actors, and which was also directed by Winterbottom.) Again, however, the actors are playing versions of themselves: The movie functions as a self-critique as much as it does a straight-up comedy.

Over and over again –- with and without Coogan –- Winterbottom has proven himself to be a director who breaks boundaries. True, he’s done his share of straight-up movies based on books, including 2007’s A MIGHTY HEART, a faithful retelling of the story of Marianne Pearl (Angelina Jolie), the widow of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was kidnapped and slain by terrorists in Pakistan; 2010’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME was an expansive adaptation of Jim Thompson’s notorious novel about a deranged small-town sheriff. But he’s much more in his element in the amazing TRISHNA, an adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles set in modern day India, transporting Thomas Hardy’s tragic romance into the realm of a rapidly developing country where class lines are competing with industrialization. It was an inspired choice, because the social upheaval in India today is not unlike the social upheaval going on in Victorian England, when Hardy wrote his book. That’s one of the key tenets of Winterbottom’s filmography, when you think about it: That in order to get to the heart of something, sometimes you have to travel far away from it first.

Don’t miss 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE tonight at 8P and all month long on Sundance Channel.

Photo credit: Music Box Theatre