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24 Hour Party People Print E-mail
Tuesday, 21 January 2003

24 Hour Party People

MPAA rating: R
starring: Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Lennie James, Sean Harris
release year: 2002
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Four Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Talk about your added-value DVDs. “24 Hour Party People” doesn’t have nearly the amount of supplemental material of, say, the “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” set (although the two films do have something in common – more on that later), but it does have something that the movie itself makes you crave. This is an audio commentary from its principal subject, Tony Wilson, who adds a few more notches of usually hilariously dry perspective (and fact-checking) to this docudrama-style lesson in real-life rock ‘n’ roll history.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom and scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce, “24 Hour Party People” encompasses the years 1976 through 1992, showing us events that range from the truly tragic to the somewhat magical to the spectacularly ridiculous, as seen through the eyes of Manchester, England music promoter Wilson (played in the film by Steve Coogan). If you remember bands like Joy Division and the Happy Mondays or heard of Factory Records, here’s the balls-out, slightly absurdist lowdown. If none of this rings a bell, imagine if Spinal Tap were, real, the poor fellow who’d taken responsibility for them had some with and intelligence to go with his obvious insanity and decided to tell you everything that happened in his interactions with that band and similar acts, and you’ll have a notion of what “24 Hour Party People” is like.

Then again, maybe you won’t. Director Winterbottom and screenwriter Boyce show positive glee in startling us by having our protagonist and narrator Wilson occasionally do things like interrupt a scene in progress to tell us this isn’t quite what happened or happily point out the real Wilson in a bit part. The fact that the onscreen Wilson, as portrayed by Coogan, sounds almost identical to the real Wilson on the commentary track in tone and content speaks highly of both the accuracy of the filmmakers’ ears and the genuine cleverness of both factual and fictionalized personages.

When we first meet Tony is 1976, he’s a high-profile but dissatisfied reporter for the BBC, trying out the new sport of hang-gliding (as we’re told on both commentary tracks, the sequence is interspersed with the actual news footage of the real Wilson crashing into a stand of trees) and doing video features on zoo elephants (somewhat less dangerous to Tony’s health, but taking a toll on his dignity). One night, Tony and his wife Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) see the Sex Pistols perform for an audience of 42 souls in a mostly empty hall in Manchester (among other members of the numerically tiny crowd are the Buzzcocks, Mick Hucknall and members of the band that will become Joy Division). Never mind the lack of bodies in the venue – Tony is galvanized. Here is the sound of the future, the sound of today – how can he get it out to people and how can he be a part of it?

Tony starts out by teaming up with pal Alan Erasmus (Lenny James) to run showcase nights for favorite bands at a local club in Manchester. This is an uneven venture, but the two men nevertheless join with band manager Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine) to form Factory Records. In 1982, Tony and Co. branch out further, buy a building and open the Hacienda nightclub. Tony is doing what he loves, but the bands are not only controversial – Joy Division, named for a Nazi rape squad, attracts racists and angers a lot of other people – but hard to handle. The musicians are often emotionally volatile (there are losses to suicide), taking massive amounts of drugs, or both. Tony’s wild enthusiasm for the possibilities around him and his own indulgence in drugs cause him to make questionable decisions and just plain freak out on occasion. The outcome is foreseeable, but still quite a train wreck.

Although parts of “24 Hour Party People” are fictionalized (as the film even sans commentary is happy to point out via the on-camera narration by Coogan-as-Wilson), it is absolutely convincing in its view of the big picture. Tony’s observations and the continually outrageous situations make for an engrossing filmic environment – we feel like we’re in the room, fascinated and amused and dismayed by what we’re seeing without any power to alter it (just like most of the other spectators at the time). Director Winterbottom plays with the look from scene to scene, realistically portraying both poverty grunge and ‘80s punk-hip excess, but also whimsically using sepia to denote “the past” (even when “the past” is only a few minutes before “the present”). Boyce’s dialogue is ever-sharp, realistic and quotable.

The movie is almost unimaginable without Coogan’s central performance as Tony Wilson. Coogan gives us the man’s considerable ego without making him off-putting, and manages the harder-than-it-sounds feat of making Tony’s passion for the music seem endearing rather than pretentious. He also persuades us that this guy really can see the funny side of his own problems without turning him into Yoda – we get self-pity and self-awareness in the correct proportions. The entire supporting cast is excellent, especially Sean Harris as turmoil-ridden Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Wilson cheerfully points out in his commentary that Andy Serkis, in a pitch-perfect turn as eccentric sound engineer Martin Hannett, plays Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films, noting that the real-life Hannett was “significantly weirder than Gollum.”

Besides Wilson’s comments, there is a second audio commentary track with star Coogan and producer Andrew Eaton, which is agreeable if not quite as informative, with Eaton sometimes serving as interviewer. On both commentary tracks, the comments are in the center channel, with the main audio track lowered in the mains and rears, raised back to almost full volume when the commentators pause. There is also an entertaining and reasonably comprehensive 11-minute “making of” featurette and another featurette on Wilson.

There are 49 individual songs listed on the soundtrack – New Order, Happy Mondays, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, lots of Joy Division – many of which are guaranteed to bring the period back to the viewer. The sound mix choices on the live sequences are intriguing here – in Chapter 2, when Wilson first sees the Sex Pistols live (the scene is filmed on the location where it really happened), there’s a nice grungy surround effect, putting us in the room with what is credibly the not-state-of-the-art sound system on the premises and people chatting around us. There’s a great, smooth transition between Chapters 2 and 3, as we go from the din of the performance hall to a private room, with good, specific paper crunches as posters are ripped off a wall and dialogue sounds cleanly in the center. A montage of bands later in Chapter 3 from Wilson’s TV show has sound that is primarily in the center and mains, going for a plausible high-quality bootleg effect rather than a sonic immersion which would remove us from the experience of being in the ‘70s with the attendant technology of the day. A concert sequence in Chapter 5 has a good mixture of the onstage band – the actors playing Joy Division – and the excited audience, with the intriguing choice not to punch Harris’ vocals higher than the instruments, so that the drama comes from the performance and the situation rather than just the sound. In Chapter 9, there’s similarly judicious balance between the crowd sounds and the music.

The music locks us into its various eras as thoroughly as any other element of the film and irresistibly prompts the curiosity of anyone who wonders about these things – okay, how did these sounds reach the general public, once upon a time? “24 Hour Party People” provides part of the answer, just about as entertainingly and credibly as any non-documentary can.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Audio Commentary by Actor Steve Coogan and Producer Andrew Eaton; Audio Commentary by Tony Wilson; Deleted Scenes; Making-Of Featurette; Biographical Featurette on Tony Wilson; Photo Gallery; Theatrical Trailer; English, Spanish, French and Portuguese Subtitles; English Closed-Captioning
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reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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