Sam Riley as Ian Curtis walks through the grey wasteland of Manchester
Outside of the context of Joy Division and their music, Ian Curtis is not a particularly interesting figure. Nor would his life by itself would make for a compelling film. But Joy Division made music that changed lives and pop culture ever since the band’s very brief existence came to a sudden end, making the mythology and tragedy surrounding the life and death of Curtis larger than life.
This has been the main crux of some of the critiques of Anton Corbijn’s Control, a recently released film based on widow Deborah Curtis’ memoir Touching From A Distance. While another recent film, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, placed the Madchester scene and eccentric Factory Records head Tony Wilson in a greater sociopolitical and urban mythological context, Control in contrast is merely a kitchen-sink drama about a deeply disturbed married man and the guilt-ridden affair that inspired his dark and apocalyptic poetry.
Many rock movies or biopics are usually described as “for fans only,” but this film is quite the opposite for those who have bought in to Curtis’ “young man with the weight on his shoulders” self-image he constructed. In constrast to his booming voice, Ian Curtis in reality and in this film was a timid, shy person who had a difficult time revealing himself to the people he loved. His band members, especially Peter Hook, were more colorful than he was. This film will undoubtedly leave the dedicated wanting more.
I never fully bought into the myth of Joy Division despite being a great fan of not only their music but of the post-punk era in general. Ian Curtis was not a truly sympathetic individual to me, and thankfully this film does not aim to portray him in such a way. Instead, it’s a sadly beautiful portrait of the troubled man, carefully composed in Anton Corbijn’s signature grayscale treatment and perfectly portrayed by Sam Riley (who, interestingly enough, portrayed Mark E. Smith of The Fall in 24PP), a dead ringer for the late Curtis. Corbijn was the photographer who helped defined the image of the band with his black and white portraits, and his gorgeous cinematography in his feature length debut is perfect in its depiction of Manchester as the gray, industrial wasteland that spawned such desolate music.
Dave hates Joy Division because it’s “too depressing” (how many posts has he written about Elliott Smith?). A lame reason to discount such terrific music, and you can’t hold it against them for it when they were living right on the fault line between the “ungovernable” ’70s in Britain and the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister. Control is essentially one of Curtis’ songs transformed into a 2-hour film. Throughout, there is a lingering sense of sadness and despair that one feels the instant they listen to Closer. A particular scene that captures this sense is when Curtis stares blankly at his medicine cabinet full of his cocktail of drugs used to control his epilepsy. He detested the drugs, as their side effects took him out of the anguish of real life that he fed off of, but alternately did not want to be helpless to the seizures which would often occur during performances.
Corbijn meticulously depicts the rush and bustle of the Manchester scene with posters on every wall within the film listing gigs (with acts such as fellow Mancunian bands Buzzcocks and The Fall) and brief appearances from other members of the scene (Mark E. Smith gets in a argument with Peter Hook, John Cooper Clarke introduces the band at a gig). Nearly 5 years of Ian Curtis’ life blow by for two-thirds of the film’s total running length. However, at the moment band manager Rob Gretton announces their first American tour, the pace comes nearly to a grinding halt. Knowing that Curtis kills himself on the eve of the embarkment, Control toys with your dread. Not only do you know that the end is near for our tragic protagonist, but in the last two weeks of his life you could see that Curtis was aware of it himself. Yes, they show him listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot before he hangs himself.
Control is less a bloated and self-indulgent “rock movie,” and more of a stark snapshot of the events that mold the a tortured mind to make timeless music. It’s a tastefully understated and appropriate approach to the music and life of an era and individual who lives on in our collective minds by one of the people who not only was there but also admired them for their daring approach. It’s less a confirmation of what you knew about Joy Division, but an explanation. Control unfortunately ended its run at the Nuart in Santa Monica, CA but is still at Film Forum in New York until Nov. 1st. Rhino Records is releasing Joy Division reissues and the film soundtrack on Oct. 30th.
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