By Don Simpson | March 2, 2009
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer(s): Deborah Curtis (autobiography Touching from a Distance), Matt Greenhalgh (writer)
Staring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara
Anton Corbijn is most famous for his music videos and photo collaborations with U2 and Depeche Mode, but in 1979-80 (while working in London for the NME) he photographed Joy Division (he later directed a music video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” in 1988). For his first foray into the realm of narrative films, Corbijn took on Ian Curtis (the lead singer of Joy Division) heart-wrenching life, basing it on Deborah Curtis’ biography of her late husband Touching From a Distance.
Ian (Sam Riley) married young and died young. In between his marriage and death, his life was as tumultuous and dramatic as a Hollywood screenplay; concurrently, he epitomized the existential struggle of a rock star. It is dumbfounding that it has taken this long to produce a film about him.
From their inception, Joy Division was destined to go down in the music history books forever, for no less than attending a Sex Pistols show at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. There, in the company of so many other burgeoning musicians (including: Morrissey of The Smiths, Howard Devoto of Buzzcocks and Magazine, Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records], Bernard Sumner (played in the film by James Anthony Pearson) and Peter “Hooky” Hook (Joe Anderson) met Ian.
Originally named Warsaw (in reference to David Bowie’s “Warszawa,” an instrumental track from Low), they changed their name in late 1977 to Joy Division in reference to a Nazi concentration camp’s prostitution wing featured in The House of Dolls – “no life at all in the house of dolls”. Needless to say, they were haunted by rumors about neo-Nazi associations (these rumors were totally unfounded).
Joy Division’s popularity, especially in the U.K., grew quickly and exponentially. Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) featured them on his television program So It Goes (they played “Shadowplay,” but in Control they play “Transmission”) and promptly signed them to Factory Records (possibly with his own blood, if we choose to accept the myth). In January 1979, Ian was featured on the cover of NME and Joy Division appeared on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. They couldn’t get much higher.
Their tour schedule was relentless. The late 1970s were an extremely competitive and cut-throat time for musicians, especially in the U.K. (you could say it was total anarchy). The aforementioned Sex Pistols show inspired so many of its audience to form bands for one very simple reason – the Pistols made it look so easy. Punk rock didn’t demand much in the way of musical talent. It was the first genre of music that anyone could play; hence, everyone did.
The expectations on Ian as a performer were grueling and difficult for him. Many of these expectations were self-imposed. Worshiping at the alter of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Bryan Ferry; Ian wanted to be a charismatic front man just like his heroes. He was infamous for the amount of sweat, energy and emotion that poured from his body during Joy Division shows (not to mention his dance moves).
The only problem was Ian suffered from epileptic seizures. The medicine to control his epilepsy had even more negative affects than the disease itself. While medicated, Ian couldn’t write or perform; he could only sleep. While un-medicated, Ian was always at risk of having a fatal seizure. Drinking (which he always did prior to going on stage) increased the risk of seizures tenfold.
Even more wearing on Ian was his rocky relationship with Debbie (Samantha Morton), to whom he married in 1975. Despite the fame of Joy Division, there was very little fortune. Ian kept a government day job until his epilepsy, medicine and rock and roll lifestyle got the better of him. Ian and Debbie were living at or near poverty level; a new baby at home and a new house only added to their financial woes and stress. As an escape, Ian fell in love on the road with a Belgian fanzine journalist, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), which tossed his emotional life into a total whirlwind.
Ian opted to permanently escape from all of his inner and outer turmoil on May 18, 1980 (mere hours before Joy Division was scheduled to embark on their first tour of the U.S.). After watching Werner Herzog’s Strozek and listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot he hanged himself in his kitchen. From the death of Joy Division grew another seminal band, New Order, from its ashes. In Control you’ll see Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) sitting with the four members of New Order at the pub after Ian’s suicide.
Commencing in 1973 with Ian (age 16) purchasing the newest David Bowie release, Aladdin Sane; the spot-on soundtrack not only provides clues to his musical influences (David Bowie, Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks) but also to the chronology of onscreen events.
The lush black and white cinematography is just as stimulating and intriguing. Control perfectly reflects the very same doom and gloom of gray old 1970s England that spawned Joy Division. Meticulously framed and crafted, Corbijn’s visual senses are impeccably manicured. Books, posters and photos are precisely placed in each scene to serve as references and clues to Ian’s life in 1970’s Britain.
Corbijn could have chosen to portray Ian as a moody and depressed recluse (as he is often stereotyped because of his lyrics); instead Control reveals that (other than his extra-marital affairs) he was a pleasant, caring bloke. Ian was dealt a raw deal in life (his epilepsy). His suicide was less out of desperation than out of necessity – he was destined to have no future.
Music was his one and only calling in life. To call Ian Curtis a talented lyricist would be a horrendous understatement. His songs are truly amazing pieces of poetry. Control puts many of his songs into specific contexts; giving the lyrics even deeper meaning and creating a better understanding of where the words came from. For example, we see Ian writing “She’s Lost Control” after he witnessed a woman having an epileptic seizure.
Ok, obviously Joy Division is one of my favorite bands. I truly believe that they are one of the most important bands in the history of rock music. They were the true stalwarts of the post-punk movement. They defined a sound that would be more and more influential each and every decade since their demise (culminating with Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights). The same goes for New Order, who repeatedly took dance music to entirely new and intellectual levels.
Control was quite obviously made for me and other Joy Division fans (though many non-fans will undoubtedly enjoy it as well). There are numerous scenes during which images and/or performances are so spot-on that it is difficult to believe that you are not watching archival footage of the band or home movies of Ian’s life; so much so that it was difficult to stay seated with all of the excitement and emotion building inside of me during the screening. This coming from someone that utterly detests biopics (especially music-related biographies)! Somehow, Control defies any of the inherent problems of biopics; I still don’t understand how or why.