(14/10/07) – The filming of the Joy Division story has been keenly anticipated. The anticipation has in some quarters been a case of trepidation, as the story of the Manchester band and the demise of its singer Ian Curtis has created one of the biggest myths in English music. Curtis, writing and singing deeply personal lyrics and dying aged 23, has since been raised to the level of a cult hero tragically dying for his art.
The beautiful openness of the band’s music has formed the soundtrack for many passages through troubled adolescences and Curtis has been placed upon a pedestal of doomed rock stars, among the obvious comparisons of Jim Morrison and, later, Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith. The truth of the matter is that parallel to the existence of the rock myth runs the more awkward truth of an awkward life, domestic problems and an illness that was far more humiliating in its destructiveness than the myth would have you believe.
Anton Corbijn’s film, Control, based on Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From A Distance, premiered at Cannes earlier this year and has been generally well received. Using the memoir of the person closest to Ian Curtis as the basis of the film allows the story a sense of truthfulness often absent from the music biopics of other bands. The depiction of Curtis in the book is not one of a rock god, but rather of a young man with domestic difficulties, accentuated by financial worries, epilepsy, a career taking off while taking its toll. The end result was a sad and ugly termination of a confused, expressive life.
The acting performances are strong and Sam Riley, (despite, from certain angles, looking a dead ringer for Joy Division’s drummer, Steve Morris), puts in a very fine performance as Ian Curtis. Samantha Morton’s performance as Deborah Curtis is one of sympathy, exclusion and isolation. The portrayal of Joy Division as a band is very good, made more impressive by the fact that the actors actually performed the songs themselves. Despite the IMDB listing for the film stating that Joy Division’s songs are easy to play, to play them with the energy, and feeling, that the actors carry off in this film is a wonderful feat – adding to the film’s credibility. Riley’s voice is not note for note, tone for tone, inflection for inflection, Ian Curtis, but it is damned near close enough. The best performance in the film is probably that of Toby Kebbell, (previously seen as Anthony, in Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes)as the band’s streetwise and cuttingly humorous manager, Rob Gretton. The best lines and the crucial comic relief (and at times tenderness) are reserved for his character.
Visually and musically there are more than enough iconic images, concert footage and television appearances in existence from which to base the look of the film. What Corbijn has done well is to manage to restage those images and performances as set pieces and then link them, at times seamlessly, to interweave the story of Curtis’s married life in Macclesfield. There are sequences that may appear to go on too long, or may be a little ponderous in their suggestion of moments in a life becoming the source for a song. But these moments are never overbearing. Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh manage to capture the unique humour and camaraderie of the band.
Peter Hook claimed that Joy Division were four young lads getting pissed. Tony Wilson had a great anecdote of leaving the band’s rehearsal rooms one night in the dark, and placing his hand into a sticky mess of the jam-smeared door handle of his car, before looking up to see Curtis and co. laughing their heads off at him. In the film, perhaps the focus on Curtis as the overly sensitive and slightly separated, brooding lead singer is a little over-emphasised, but it helps the mechanic of the drama.
Control also benefits from its flaws. The worst thing would have been a very slick, finished, well-balanced film. There is something about the story of Joy Division and the tragedy of Curtis’s marriage, that would have suffered from an evened out, hyper-stylised, MTV-friendly movie version. Corbijn’s first feature film has a very flat-toned, often wide-angled look that brings to mind the title of Deborah Curtis’s book. This is not the squared off film of Joy Division, but its imperfection is what makes it ring true to the reality of the tale.
Control is currently playing in the UK, the U.S. and the Netherlands.