One of the most inspired works that I've seen from highly-regarded filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, "24 Hour Party People" is a docu-drama that takes a fascinating look at the rise of the Manchester music scene (New Order, Happy Mondays) through the eyes of journalist and founder of Factory Records, Tony Wilson (Steven Coogan). Those who have no - or little - idea about any of this music (such as myself) will still likely find themselves wrapped up in this presentation of the rise of the scene, as there's more than enough comedy and wit to make for a compelling presentation.
Take an early scene for example, where Tony watches an early Sex Pistols concert, with an audience of maybe 40. Talking to the camera, he points to various people around the room who will go on to become famous and play in front of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. Wilson talks up the bands from this new scene on his television show, books them at a new club he opens up and eventually starts Factory records, which we see go from a remarkable success to finally closing up shop shortly after the rave scene begins, closed down by the rise of drugs and violence. The opening scene, a darkly funny bit of business where Wilson takes a nasty fall while hang-gliding, is an appropriate way to start the picture.
The movie works surprisingly well, if mainly because Winterbottom has a remarkably good idea on how to play the tone and structure. The film doesn't take itself entirely seriously (see a scene about pigeon poisoning that turns into something like a cross between "The Birds" and "Apocalypse Now" or another bit where Wilson talks to the camera about a scene that "will likely be on the DVD"), with Coogan's often incredibly sharp and funny performance able to make light of the situations (some of the direct-to-camera lines are very funny) and be serious when it's called for. He's kind of a jerk and certainly has an ego, but Coogan's performance still makes the character sympathetic.
Also, Winterbottom's somewhat unorganized structure to the film and the way it uses different film stocks and digital video makes for a film that feels real. I'm not a fan of digital video (it either looks good or terrible), but it's used well here. While one can still tell it's DV, it looks fairly smooth and the camerawork is effective.
Other than the fact that the rave material in the last quarter started to drag out a bit (before the film picks back up towards the end), the film was definitely a pleasant surprise. Winterbottom and the screenwriter have done a fine job tracing the history of this scene, making it clearly understandable for non-fans (everyone's followed one musical "scene" at one point or another and may be able to relate) and likely enjoyable for those who followed the music.
VIDEO: "24 Hour Party People" is presented by MGM/UA in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation quality is, considering the material, perfectly fine. This is a fairly low-budget feature, which looks to have been filmed on digital video (although I couldn't find anything to confirm that. Still, for DV, it looks pretty decent) and contains quite a bit of archive footage. Throughout the film, sharpness and detail varies up quite a bit, as the picture offers some scenes that look fairly crisp and defined and other low-light indoor scenes that lack fine detail.
Aside from understandably so-so definition at times, the picture thankfully doesn't suffer from too many other faults. Edge enhancement is noticable at times, but only appears rather briefly. Some of the archive footage is a bit scratches up, but the new footage only shows some grain - no marks or scratches. A couple of traces of pixelation were spotted, but these were hardly much of an issue.
The film's color palette is intentionally dreary, but looks fairly solid here, with only a little bit of smearing on occasion, but no other concerns. While not without some faults, MGM has done a respectable job with material that was likely somewhat difficult to get just right on DVD.
SOUND: "24 Hour Party People" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 by MGM. The film's soundtrack is generally very good, with the music sounding crisp and dynamic, with nice reinforcement from the surrounds. Although most of the film's soundtrack comes from the front speakers, the surrounds do contribute nicely when the material calls for it. The only issue that I found with the soundtrack was that the dialogue occasionally seemed slightly low in the mix, requiring the volume to be turned up a bit and then turned down a bit when the music came back in loudly.
EXTRAS: The DVD includes two commentaries, one by producer Andrew Eaton and actor Steve Coogan; the other with the real Tony Wilson. Wilson offers a somewhat inconsistent (some patches of silence) track, but he offers the same sharp sense of humor in discussing his real-life stories that Coogan does in the picture itself. We here more about the music scene throughout, as well as some very funny jokes about the events of Wilson's own life. He also freely admits what he doesn't like about the film. Browsing through this track, I found it both highly informative and entertaining. While I thought the Wilson track had a few patches of silence, it's more consistent than the Coogan/Eaton track, as the two are low-key and don't really seem to have a great deal to discuss. Definitely stick with the Wilson track.
Also: An 11-minute "making of"; a 5-minute featurette on Wilson; 11 deleted scenes (no optional commentary); the film's trailer and a photo gallery.
Final Thoughts: "24 Hour Party People" doesn't always sustain its pace or atmosphere, but more often than not, it's a well-acted, funny and intelligent look at the rise and fall of this particular music scene. MGM's DVD offers good audio/video quality and a nice set of supplements. Recommended.