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.