A Review of Control, the Joy Division biopic

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(RFT contributor Mike Appelstein saw the Joy Division biopic, Control -- which is at the Tivoli through Thursday -- and had this to say about the film. As a caveat, he says he wrote this review just after he saw the film last weekend, off the top of his head, a la my Radiohead In Rainbows post. For further reading, see Mike's blog entry from April 21, 2006, about his history with the band.)

There were only two other people in the Tivoli audience at yesterday’s afternoon showing of Control, Anton Corbijn’s new biopic about Joy Division and its doomed lead singer, Ian Curtis. This felt absolutely perfect (though perhaps the Tivoli owners saw it differently). Joy Division has always been a very personal band in my life. I discovered its two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, as a lonely and alienated teenager, and spent many a solitary evening listening through headphones in my exurban bedroom. If I wondered how a Joy Division biopic would translate to the world at large …well, that mystery remains unsolved, for better or worse.

Perhaps “better” is the best choice. For what Control boasts in beautiful cinematography, accurate portrayals and, of course, haunting music, it lacks in complexity and electricity. If you’re a Joy Division obsessive, you’ll probably find it surprisingly subdued. If you’re unfamiliar with this Manchester post-punk band, or you’ve only heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart”…well, I cannot imagine spending two hours with these unpleasant, self-absorbed people and not leaving exhausted.

The standard rap on Joy Division is that they were “depressing” and “morbid.” Certainly Curtis’ lyrics were neither shiny nor happy, and his ominous baritone didn’t often lighten the mood. His lyrics sketched bleak and existential portraits of individuals tormented by often-unseen forces. Sometimes he described his own pain, sometimes he took the third person and very occasionally (as in Closer’s “Atrocity Exhibition”), he would implicate the listener, the fan, the concertgoer as well. But – as with fellow Mancunians the Smiths and the Fall – to focus on the lyrics and vocals is to miss the point entirely. It’s easy to forget that Joy Division had three other musicians: a drummer equally influenced by punk and Kraftwerk, a bass player whose high-pitched lines all but redefined the bass as a lead instrument, and a guitarist who didn’t so much play chords as set off underwater depth charges. Dirges? Sure, they had a few. But they also had genuinely upbeat songs such as “Disorder,” “Interzone” and “Transmission.”

That said, there is a genuinely haunting quality that threads throughout Joy Division’s entire catalog, and Ian Curtis is the key. He was a genuinely conflicted and complicated soul: a Conservative voter in a Labour world; an epilepsy sufferer insistent on keeping late hours and performing in front of bright lights; a family man who held onto his day job well into Joy Division’s career, but who insisted on maintaining an affair with Belgian journalist Annick Honore. That he ultimately committed suicide at 23 – literally hours before his band’s first American tour – is tragic, but not really surprising. What Curtis was not was your standard tortured artiste.

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And this is exactly where Control takes its wrong turn. Corbijn isn’t a neophyte. He was there in real time – he photographed them, hung around them, and even produced their posthumous funereal video for “Atmosphere.” He was working from Touching From A Distance, the autobiography written by Ian’s widow Deborah Curtis, and he had Factory Records’ exec Tony Wilson on board as a producer. But, despite this absolute treasure of source material, what should have been a four-star movie ends up uncomfortably close to Sid and Nancy, flattening out interesting characters to fit a conventional story arc.

Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis. His resemblance is uncanny, but it’s also one-dimensional. He spends almost the entire movie with the same gloomy pout on his face. We are neither shown nor told why he feels this way. We see a few epileptic episodes, but they seem to be passing, infrequent in nature, and treatable with medication (which he seems to hate taking). We follow his affair with Honore, but she comes across as anything beyond a enigmatic ingénue. Curtis protests that he “hates” her and he “tries to get rid of her, but she won’t go away,” but at no point do either of them seem anything less than smitten for each other. The newcomer could be forgiven for wondering why he’s so depressed. Given that he’s in a successful band, with no obvious preference to be at home with his wife and young daughter, he comes across as merely selfish.

Most of the other characters are written in the same bland way. The other members of Joy Division are basically anonymous, which is a surprise to anyone who’s read bassist Peter Hook’s often-riotous interviews. Tony Wilson, the brash and outspoken television presenter and Factory Records label head, comes across as needy and weak – the exact opposite of Steve Coogan’s charged portrayal in 24 Hour Party People. Only Rob Gretton, played with hilarious hubris and overstatement by Tony Kebbell, comes off as a memorable character.

None of this would matter much if the musical performances were top-notch. Joy Division could be absolutely devastating live. On a good night – when the band reached maximum velocity and Curtis was deep into his disturbing, trancelike shadowboxing dance – they were literally frightening. It’s a high bar, perhaps impossible to reach, yet Riley doesn’t even try, really. He’s got the stance and facial expressions down pat, but he’s surprisingly still and subdued. Only on “Dead Souls” does he really match the frenetic level of the real band – and that’s meant as a setup for an onstage seizure.

Control has its positives. The entire film is beautifully shot in atmospheric black and white; it’s obvious Corbijn has paid a lot of attention to detail, right down to the labels on the lager cans. There are several good moments for trainspotters – it was a nice touch getting Mancunian poet John Cooper Clarke to perform “Evidently Chickentown,” Gretton tries to cheer Curtis up by reminding him that “it could be worse – you could be the lead singer for The Fall.” And I don’t think anyone knew that “She’s Lost Control” included the sound of an aerosol can rhythmically sprayed into the microphone. But the whole movie has a strangely alienating and antiseptic quality that does neither its subject nor its audience justice. If anything, it made me want to rent 24 Hour Party People again – a messy but inspired film that makes a much, much better case for Joy Division, Factory Records and Manchester.

-- Annie Zaleski

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