Control: apt title for Joy Division / Ian Curtis biopic where control is not much in evidence

Control
It’s apt that this biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis should be called Control because, apart from the reference to the famous Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control”, control was the one thing Curtis had very little of over many aspects of his short life: his career and the way it was heading, his relationships, his health and, perhaps most of all, his inner being and security. Directed by long-time Joy Division devotee Anton Corbijn, Control (Momentum / The Weinstein Company 2007) is a beautifully shot film with a black-and-white print and a strictly linear plot structure, that by turns transforms Curtis’s life into a curious mix of 1950s social realist drama, industrial Romanticist tragedy and Impressionist, even existentialist study that brings to the fore in shades of grey Curtis’s anxieties and the pressures weighing on him, and which calls into question where and how people of a sensitive, artistic nature can find their place in modern industrial society. Lead actor Sam Riley portrays the singer with all his contradictions and torments, even his style of performance, to great effect.

Based on the memoir Touch from a Distance by Curtis’s widow Deborah (who was also co-producer), the film relegates the other Joy Division members to minor status, almost to the extent where they aren’t much more than necessary accessories to the plot, and manager Rob Gretton appears as the required comic relief, which perhaps does disservice to him as he died several years ago. Anyone not familiar with Joy Division’s history and output will get at best a hazy idea of what the musicians achieved together and of the band’s significance in the history of British rock and pop music. That means of course that we learn nothing about how Joy Division wrote their songs and developed their particular and distinctive brand of post-punk music, and how and why it resonated with so many people in the UK and elsewhere. Some incidents, such as Factory Records boss Tony Wilson signing the band’s contract with his own blood (supposedly) and the gig riot where Gretton eagerly flies into the audience to punch a heckler, appear for laughs or for sensationalism. However in a biopic such as this, I appreciate there is a need for moments of levity. For all that, the character of Deborah Curtis herself is reduced to the long-suffering, stay-at-home wife / mother forced by circumstances and Curtis himself to remain on the fringes of his career and life, and this, apart from not giving actor Samantha Morton much to do in the role of Deborah, speaks volumes about cultural attitudes towards married women like Deborah at the time, their place in their husbands’ lives and how such notions fed into the myth of the rock star lifestyle. The cruel irony (in the film anyway – we don’t see the band together much in the studio or on tour) is that not only does Curtis himself fall under the spell of this myth, it cuts him off from the one person who could have understood and helped him with his problems, and leads him into situations where he is vulnerable and out of his depth. In the course of the film, interesting questions arise about how artists and musicians view themselves and their work vis-a-vis how their audiences see them and their work – in scenes where Joy Division are performing live and Curtis starts having epileptic seizures, some people in the audience start jeering him on, thinking he is acting for their benefit – and about the contrasts between Deborah and his extramarital lover Annik Honore and what the two women represent for him. Within the film’s narrow narrative framework, these questions can never be fully addressed.

Before seeing Control, I didn’t think I knew Joy Division’s music all that well, not having heard all the band’s studio albums and only ever having owned a compilation set Substance that came out 20 years ago, so I was surprised by the music that does appear in the film’s soundtrack: it turns out that the set I did have is representative of the band’s output and I recognised most of the Joy Division songs in the soundtrack. Excerpts of 1970s songs by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, The Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols also can be heard along with incidental music from New Order. The British performance poet John Cooper Clarke appears as himself declaiming some of his poetry early on in the film.

I like the film but I don’t think it has much appeal beyond an audience already familiar with Joy Division’s music and history. The fact that I saw it on TV on a non-commercial channel at a late hour as I had missed the cinematic release two years ago says as much. Corbijn wisely avoids romanticising Curtis’s life and death by presenting his seizures as depressing and painful rather than as trance-like, vivid and perhaps revelatory, and by portraying the singer’s last hours as rather banal, but for audiences reared on Hollywood-style plots that insist on wringing or manipulating anything offering false hope out of even the most desperate situation, this won’t do. The hero has to grit his teeth and get himself out of trouble by his own devices somehow, overcome all those years of mental, social and cultural conditioning (yeah, fat chance), and not be passive – as the cliché goes: Just Do It! The linear structure doesn’t permit much exploration of any issues and questions that arise as the film progresses. When the film ends, it ends on a tragi-Romantic note, yet if the other members of Joy Division had been treated as more than moving wallpaper, we could have had an ending of hope and rebirth that would have cheered the masses: the guys all went on to form New Order and as far as I’m aware they all still have careers in music.

Some people may see in Control an example of how depression and suicide can devastate families and friends, and how if only people could recognise an individual’s symptoms and behaviours as potentially leading to suicide, they might be able to get help sooner for the person and avoid tragedy. But I’m not sure that had Curtis’s family and friends been able to recognise Curtis’s behaviour as suicidal, they might have been able to get help for him in time as the film does have scenes of Curtis in denial about his problems and preferring to please people rather than upset them or their plans.

Incidentally the screenplay for Control was written by Matt Greenhalgh who also wrote the screenplay for Nowhere Boy which I saw very recently, so it’s no wonder that I see too many similarities between the two films: a main male character based on a real person is torn between two women of contrasting characters and sets of values.

Nowhere Boy

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You don’t need to know much about The Beatles or John Lennon in particular to watch Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy (Ecosse Films / Icon), a fictionalised account about a period in Lennon’s teenage life that was supposedly significant to his development as a musician and person; in fact if you do, you might be annoyed at how the whole episode has been packaged. Life is never so tidy as it is presented in the movies. The period covers the time Lennon became reacquainted with his mother Julia after a decade of abandonment, during which his Aunt Mimi and her husband have brought him up, and runs up to and includes Julia’s death and funeral. During this time Julia teaches Lennon how to play banjo, involves him with her family life that includes two small daughters (one of whom whose memoirs form the basis for this film – this is the older child, Julia) she had with her de facto husband, and generally introduces Lennon to a different and more carefree way of experiencing life than the boy has known so far from his strait-laced aunt. Lennon ends up transforming from a rebellious teenager with no idea of what to do with himself or why he is angry at everyone and everything to a more purposeful young man who discovers in music an outlet for his artistic talents and his various frustrations.

Aaron Johnson, who plays Lennon, does a sterling job in what is basically a coming-of-age / kitchen-sink drama. He portrays nearly the full range of Lennon’s complex and troubled personality: he is at once sensitive, full of bravado and cheek, boorish, aware of the class differences between himself and his aunt on the one hand and on the other the people he prefers to mix with, and capable of unbelievable cruelty to people who love and support him. Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi) and Anne-Marie Duff (Julia) are capable actors who, perhaps inevitably in this kind of movie drama, have to fall into the sisterly equivalent of the good cop / bad cop routine: the prim and proper class-conscious Mimi, always looking severely dark and school-marmish, attempts vainly to rein in Lennon from the consequences of what she considers his misdeeds while red-haired free spirit Julia in her bright colours collaborates with her son in actions both know will probably get up Mimi’s nose. You can smell the confrontation between the two women and what they are made to represent in this movie coming from a mile away and when it arrives it’s pretty ugly with Julia’s secrets spilled out in front of her son, already drunk and distraught after trying to get his mother to admit what happened to his father and where he went years ago. After this, the movie’s not too clear on how Lennon makes his peace with his aunt and mother, and there’s a suggestion that he never has the opportunity to renegotiate his relationship with Julia due to her premature death.

Of course while we wait for the showdown to arrive, there is the significant sub-plot of Lennon’s developing interest in music which leads him to form The Quarrymen, which in itself brings him in contact with Paul McCartney (played by Thomas Sangster, who looks almost right for the part) after the latter sees The Quarrymen perform at a fair. The precocious youngster teaches Lennon correct guitar-playing techniques and chords, brings along George Harrison to join the band, and even becomes a brother figure to Lennon when they discover they have a shared experience of the loss or absence of a mother (McCartney informs Lennon that his own mother is dead). This bond is strengthened after Julia’s death and the moment when the two teenagers acknowledge the connection is brief but very moving.

And what about the music, you ask? Well, yes, The Beatles are the proverbial elephant in the room as evidenced by background noises of screaming girls and the opening chord to ‘Hard Day’s Night’ which opens the movie, but the band’s name is never actually mentioned in the movie. Some of Lennon’s music is used in the film and there is also an excerpt of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s ‘I Put A Spell On You’, but the soundtrack is scored in the main by the UK group Goldfrapp.

The movie makes no pretense at being a documentary, or even being all that factual: everything that happens appears compressed into a two-year period when more likely it was spread out over several years. The impression is given that Aunt Mimi and Julia don’t get on well because of Julia’s past behaviour in her marriage to Lennon’s father, and I imagine that a lot of Beatles and Lennon fans will be aghast at the idea of turning Lennon’s childhood and adolescence into a soap opera. Perhaps the two women actually had less influence on Lennon’s life than the film’s premise supposes and other adults most certainly had a role in forming his personality and musical development but when facts and making movie family dramas with emotionally manipulative material clash, I guess it’s generally too bad for the facts.

Don’t say you weren’t warned: It might get loud

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Here’s the recipe: take three rock guitarists, each representative of his generation of rock musicians, put them together in a huge warehouse space with their instruments and, after they’ve talked a bit and become friendly, get them to play three pieces of music (each piece having been composed by each musician) together. Around this backbone, conduct and film separate interviews with the guys about their backgrounds, their influences, why and how they decided on their careers as guitarists, and what their creative processes are; put in archival footage of their concerts and some animations; revisit some significant sites (for the musicians) with them; and make a film (It Might Get Loud, Sony Pictures Classics) out of all this. The result is sometimes rich in music history, particularly when the guitarists under the spotlight happen to be Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), but unfortunately also very jumpy, going from one musician to another just when the first guy finishes talking about a particular career impasse or crisis and is about to say how he resolved it if he did; and seems a bit superficial, not giving viewers unfamiliar with any of these guys much more than a sketchy idea of the long and winding roads each man took to be what he is now. Perhaps the format chosen is inadequate: might the whole thing have worked better if each guitarist had a half-hour episode devoted to his career and musical development and then in the fourth episode they got together to talk, compare and swap ideas and play one another’s songs? Well, perhaps not, because when these guys do meet, they end up being too nice to each other, too respectful and deferential, the Edge in particular grim-faced with self-consciousness about how his skills as a songwriter and musician stack up against those of Page and White who readily bond together, at least when they are playing each other’s songs, and the viewer gets no sense of friendships being made or future possible collaborations mooted.

As you’d expect, interesting moments abound: most interesting for me is seeing Jack White build a guitar from a slab of wood, a glass bottle, a wire and an electric pick-up, then plug the whole thing into an amplifier, get an awesome roar out of it and proclaim “Who needs an expensive guitar?” or words to that effect. Contrast this with scenes of The Edge worrying over his layers of technology that include a laptop and a battery of FX pedals to bolster his melodies and riffs, some of which turn out to be pretty insubstantial when he turns off all his equipment and strums his guitar. In one moment, The Edge demolishes a lot of the hype about U2’s music – not a good scene to watch if you’re a U2 fan. The Edge is revealed as a technology-obsessed control-freak geek who relies on his machines to compensate for what he perceives as inadequate songwriting and technical skills: he confesses that when he was much younger he wasn’t sure if he could write original material but the film-makers don’t press him on how he overcame his doubts. He reveals a lack of insight and reflection when he slags off the generation of rock musicians who came of age during the late 1960s / early ’70s for arrogant and self-indulgent behaviour but seems oblivious to U2’s own liking for massive and elaborate stage sets where Bono can run around and relish the audience’s adulation. Not to mention of course, Bono’s humanitarian posturing and U2’s moving their tax base to Netherlands after the Irish government reformed its tax laws to be more equitable and force high earners to pay more tax.

Jack White turns out to be the most interesting character in a way, rising from childhood poverty in south Detroit and a job in an upholstery shop to pursue a career in which he eschews technology and forces himself into challenging and sometimes hilarious and painful situations to keep his creativity and songwriting skills sharp. As a result along the way he creates an amplified harmonica gadget that happens to fit into his guitar almost by accident. Jimmy Page plays the affable cultured English gentleman who perhaps lives too much in the past – this may be due to the film-makers’ interview approach which concentrates on his past glories but not much on his current work – and who displays a maniacal glee when sorting through his alarmingly well-ordered and extremely neat record collection (I can already hear the jaws of The Wire readers hitting the ground and shattering) and doing slide air guitar while an old vinyl single plays on the gramophone. Free ticket to next year’s world championships in Finland to that man! He happily leads the film-makers around Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded their famous third and fourth albums and explains how the massive drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks” was captured by placing microphones around stairwells, off bannisters and in areas surrounding the room where John Bonham was playing his drums. Apart from this, there’s really not a lot of information about the processes each guitarist goes through in writing songs – to be fair, White does compose an entire song for the film-makers but is wordless the whole time and Page seems to regard explaining such processes as a professional trade secret – and at the end of the film, we are still in the dark about how three individuals approach songwriting and composing riffs and melodies.

As a homage to three guitarists, the film is entertaining though the constant jumps from one musician to another can be annoying and we get little sense of purpose or progression in each musician’s career. The film-makers don’t appear to challenge their subjects much or pursue a line of enquiry: for example, Page talks about an early career crisis when he realises his work as a session musician hit a dead end but the film then cuts away to someone else. Later on Page is shown performing with the Yardbirds so we have to make our own assumptions about they presumably saved his career. Some reviews of the film I have seen describe it as boring and I can see that the fragmented nature of the filming can encourage boredom because any interesting narrative trails that develop are lost or not maintained.

Unintentionally perhaps the film makes the case that having loads of technology or impressive playing skills is no substitute for imagination and finding yourself in situations that either test your limits or present songwriting, playing and recording problems. Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether throwing the three musicians together in a staged set-up will yield any interesting team-ups in future though in the end credits they did have a good time mucking around with Page’s theremin. Something’s bound to come out of that – and I hope it will get loud!