Sam Riley as Ian Curtis is definitely not in Control.
(Weinstein) Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Craig Parkinson, Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, Harry Treadaway, Toby Kebbell. Directed by Anton Corbijn.
One of the most influential bands of the late 1970s was Joy Division. While the name remains unfamiliar to many Americans, the band’s bleak, angular sound would go on to inspire bands around the world and essentially create the alternative rock genre. Their career was brief and ended in tragedy, but their legacy is without question.
Ian Curtis (Riley) is the very picture of disaffected youth in the industrial city of Manchester. He listens to Bowie and Iggy Pop, smokes incessantly and writes not so much poetry but ideas for poems in binders he keeps in his school desk. Deborah (Morton) is his girlfriend, one who shares his enthusiasm for music. They attend a Sex Pistols concert and Ian’s idea of what a rock band should be is transformed.
Ian and Deborah marry as teenagers, a move Ian is clearly not ready for. He is suffused by a Keatsian melancholy that makes Edgar Allen Poe look like Dr. Seuss. He gathers a group of musicians around him – Bernard Sumner (Pearson), Peter Hook (Anderson) and Stephen Morris (Treadaway) and they write songs that carry the punk ethos in a new direction – lacking the aggression that bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were famous for, but flouting the conventions of the music anyway. More like punk versions of Ian’s heroes Bowie and Bryan Ferry.
The group begins to achieve some notoriety in their performances, attracting the attention of Rob Gretton (Kebbell), who brashly offers to be their manager, and later of Tony Wilson (Parkinson), a television presenter in Manchester who also owns Factory Records, a nascent label that has already achieved a reputation for releasing really good music. The band’s fortunes are most definitely improving.
In the meantime, life is taking a downward spiral for Curtis. He has developed epilepsy, which plagues him with seizures and further depresses him. He quits his civil service job to devote himself to his band, putting financial pressure on his wife Deborah to earn more in her job which puts a strain on their marriage. The couple have a baby, Nicole (the real Nicole Curtis appears in a crowd scene at the Derby Hall sequence in the film) but the final nails in the coffin of the marriage are pounded in when Ian has an affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honore (Lara).
The band is getting ready to tour America and Ian is torn in different directions. Part of him wants to resuscitate his marriage, while another part of him wants to pursue Annik, and the larger part of him wants to be a rock star. However, his seizures are getting worse and his depression correspondingly deepens, until he hangs himself the day before Joy Division is to leave for their American tour.
This story is told not by Hollywood veterans who are painting a picture meant to be entertainment, but by people who knew the real Ian Curtis well. The movie is based on a book written by Deborah Curtis (who also serves as co-producer on the film, as does Tony Wilson who passed away shortly before it’s release) and directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch photographer who is closely associated with not only Factory Records but also with Synthpop band Depeche Mode (Corbijn directed many of their videos) and Irish rockers U2, whose album covers he shot for more than a decade (he also directed their concert film Rattle and Hum).
Corbijn shot the movie in color, but transferred it to black and white in post-production, a very wise move. The movie takes on a more documentary feel, and the stark shadows and grays make it more visually striking than it would have been in full color. With his experience shooting music videos and concert films, the live sequences stand out and are compelling, something that Hollywood rock movies tend to lack.
Riley is a revelation as Curtis. Largely unknown, Riley captures Curtis’ curiously detached vocals and gives him an emotionless air. Curtis was far from being morbid in real life, and Riley avoids the temptation to make him so onscreen. Riley plays him as a tortured individual who was unable to commit to anything but his muse. The movie rides largely on his performance and he does a terrific job here.
I was never a big Joy Division fan, although I adore their last single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” but Control gave me a chance to re-examine their music, and I’m glad I did. While they only were to release two albums in their lifetime, songs like “Atmospheres” and “Transmission” hold up surprisingly well today, nearly 30 years after the fact. The surviving members, along with Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert, would form New Order, who would achieve commercial success and acclaim but would in many ways always labor under the shadow of Joy Division. While that band is no longer active, they did score the movie.
This is a movie heavily invested in time and place, and Corbijn’s visual sense. It has the courage of presenting the subjects in harsh, unwavering light that doesn’t make any of them appear like saints, yet doesn’t have the epic sense that made Johnny Cash appear more of an archetype than an actual human being in Walk the Line. This is, quite simply, one of the best rock and roll biopics you will ever see.
WHY RENT THIS: A compelling biography of a seminal band that is not well known on this side of the Atlantic, but has influenced bands from U2 to Nirvana to Bloc Party. The acute visual sense of director Anton Corbijn makes this a visual delight.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you are not into alternative music, this may hold no interest for you.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language and the depiction of suicide, although the act itself and the body are never shown.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The actors playing Joy Division actually learned to play the songs and when they are depicted playing live, are actually playing their instruments and singing.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Extended concert sequences that show the actors playing their songs in their entirety, as well as live and promotional material of the original Joy Division, as well as a video of The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay” that plays over the closing credits.
FINAL RATING: 7/10