Release Date: 2007
Director: Anton Corbjin
Writers: Deborah Curtis (book), Matt Greenhalgh (screenplay)
Sam Riley: Ian Curtis
Samantha Morton: Debbie Curtis
Alexandra Maria Lara: Annik Honore
Joe Anderson: Peter Hook
James Anthony Pearson: Bernard Sumner
Harry Treadaway: Steve Morris
Craig Parkinson: Tony Wilson
Toby Kebbell: Rob Gretton
Run-Time: 122 mins.
Studio: Three Dogs and a Pony
This 2007 feature from the Dutch director/photographer Anton Corbjin traces the life of Ian Curtis, the moody and mysterious lead singer of the heralded English post-punk band, Joy Division, who took his life at the age of 23 in 1981 amid declining health, romantic, personal and professional troubles.
In their brief life, the Manchester, England-based four-piece released just two albums and a brace of icily gorgeous singles, including their immortal swan-song “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
They were virtually unknown outside their home country, except to rock cognoscenti. But the superficial slenderness of their resume doesn’t do justice to the profound impact they had on the late 1970s/1980s music scene.
Curtis, along with bandmates Steven Morris (drums); Bernard Sumner (guitar) and Peter Hook (bass) made moody, atmospheric music that captured the nihilism and economic decay of late 1970s Britain.
In the studio, in the hands of producer Martin Hannett, the group’s most indelible tunes, such as “She’s Lost Control” (anchored by Hook’s hypnotic bass part and Morris’ frenetic drumming) became eerily atmospheric, marked by wide open spaces in the music. It’s not a stretch to say the songs were more than a little terrifying.
Live, they were loud and dangerous, sometimes almost veering into heavy metal/industrial territory.
At all times, the songs were anchored by Curtis’ sonorous baritone, an instrument that could veer –on a pinpoint — between gut-wrenchingly emotional and wildly angry.
Based on Curtis’ widow, Deborah Curtis’ 1995 memoir, “Touching From a Distance,” and a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, “Control” tells the late singer’s story, simultaneously capturing the tragedy of his demise and the transformational influence that Joy Division had on their era.
If you are a certain kind of rock fan, of a certain age, then the outlines of Curtis’ life are already well-known. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of an emotionally troubled boy marrying too young and dealing with the fallout from his early and dizzying success.
In the case of Curtis, it was falling in love with the Belgian writer Annik Honore, and then facing the gut-wrenching choice of his safe (but apparently unhappy) life with his wife or taking up with his new love. He chose the latter, leaving his wife and young daughter for the more exotic Honore (Lara).
Already emotionally fragile, Curtis also suffered epilepsy, which manifested itself in violent fits — sometimes on stage. He relied for treatment on a cornucopia of medications.
With his band on the verge of its first American tour and his domestic life in shambles, Curtis committed suicide by hanging in 1981, aged just 23, thus securing his entrance into that particular wing of the rock pantheon — the troubled genius who dies too young.
English actor Sam Riley is — you’ll pardon the expression — a dead-ringer for Curtis. He’s got the singer’s herky-jerky stage mannerisms down-pat. Ditto for Curtis’ expressive dark eyes, which, in Riley’s care, go from gentle and loving in one moment to wild and terrified the next. His performance is nothing short of heartbreaking — particularly since many in the audience already know this story’s tragic end.
And then there’s the music …
Riley and his cinematic Joy Division band-mates played their own instruments and supplied their own vocals for the film, producing versions of the real band’s songs that are all-but-indistinguishable from the originals.
Samantha Morton’s Debbie Curtis is never less than strong, loving and supportive. Nor is she particularly impressed by her husband’s musical success (“I still wash his underpants,” she wryly tells a friend at a party). But when she discovers his betrayal, the look of pain and numbing confusion that crosses her face fairly leaps off the screen.
Best known to American audiences for his iconic photography of U2’s 1987 smash “Joshua Tree” LP, director/photogrpaher Corbjin chose to film in black-and white.
It’s an appropriate choice. Precious little footage of Joy Division exists in color. The deep grays and overcast skies of northern England are perfectly suited to the medium. And, listening to the band’s songs, it’s hard to imagine that they belong to a world that was anything other than monochrome.
Four decades on from his death, Curtis remains as influential and inspirational a figure as ever. Echoes of Joy Division can be heard in such young artists as The Killers and Interpol.
The band that Curtis’ surviving bandmates formed from the ashes of Joy Division — New Order — is just as totemic (their own history was dealt with in the excellent “24-Hour Party People“). And their success eclipsed — but never diminished Joy Division’s. In fact, as the surviving band-members enter middle age, their awareness of their roles as the caretakers of that legacy has only increased.
As I noted earlier, if you’re a certain kind of rock fan of a certain age — that is, a sensitive one who came of age in the 1980s, and was prone to fits to what you believed to be poetic melancholy — then the chances are good that the songs of Joy Division were the soundtrack to a certain part of your life: the one that was halting and awkward and sometimes painful, that you wished would pass from you as quickly as possible.
Curtis never got the chance to see his way out of that period. But those of us who walked that path, and eventually left it, felt as if we had a companion, someone who was speaking just to us.