Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Samantha Morton,
Sam Riley, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, Harry
Treadaway, Tony Kebbel, Craig Parkinson
Director: Anton Corbijn
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2008
Joy Division released only two albums in their short career before their troubled singer Ian Curtis committed suicide at age 23 in 1980. The remaining members would go on as New Order and enjoy more success, but the original band’s legacy paved the way for modern pop music and bridged the gap between punk angst and alternative melancholy.
I didn’t know much about the group apart from their best-known track “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and the singer’s early demise, but Control offers as much for the casual fan as for the die-hard follower. It was produced and directed by Anton Corbijn, a fan who photographed the group in their heyday and even directed music videos for them after they were no more. It’s a haunting portrait of a tormented soul, and about as intimate as can be considering Curtis’ self-imposed life of solitude.
It follows Curtis (the amazing Riley) from his school days, where he listens to music, scribbles words down on anything, and even marries as a teenager to his sweetheart Debbie (Morton). His meeting with bass player Peter Hook (Anderson), guitarist and keyboardist Bernard Sumner (Pearson) and drummer Stephen Morris (Treadaway) leads to a creative outlet. The band, originally christened Warsaw, needed a singer, and Curtis’ brooding lyrics, eccentric stage presence and haunting voice provided just the catalyst the group needed.
The film looks at some of the rise of the band that became Joy Division, including highlights and lowlights, but it mostly focuses on Curtis. One gets the sense that since the movie was based on his widow’s memoir that we see him mostly through her eyes, but what we mostly see is a vulnerable artist masking his own pain. Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 20, and can’t get much help under his country’s socialized medicine system…all he can get is a prescription for a bevy of varying pills and instructions to experiment with combinations until he finds one that works while his name goes on a waiting list to see a specialist.
Curtis may have also been bipolar, but we may never know for sure. On stage, his strange gyrations sometimes led to his collapse into seizures. Though married and with child, he seems to be unable to truly connect to either his wife or his mistress Annik (Lara). He’s not a self-destructive rock star a la Jim Morrison, but his constant sadness and fear of his own weak body were driving forces. As the band records their second album, he fears he has little left to give. By the time the band was ready to begin their first American tour, Curtis had hung himself in the flat he shared with his wife and daughter.
It makes Control a very different kind of biopic than we’re used to. Sure, we’ve seen troubled musical giants, but they usually triumph over their adversity. Curtis’ life had no such happy ending, and though one could argue that the continuing New Order made a huge musical impact in the 80s, the movie doesn’t look forward to it or even mention them. Corbijn doesn’t attempt to assess a positive spin on a tragic life. The positive is the music, which continues to live on as Curtis’ legacy.
I can’t say enough about Sam Riley in the lead role…if this film gets wider viewings on disc, he certainly deserves Oscar consideration. He brings us the human being behind the pain and the brooding aloofness, and gets us as close as we can to the enigma of Ian Curtis as possible while necessarily keeping us a bit at a distance.
Without Ian Curtis and Joy Division, there may have been no Cure, no Smiths, possibly not even a New Wave movement in general, even though it later became more cheesy and radio-friendly than the Manchester lads would have conceived. Curtis’ troubles took him from us far too soon, but during his short life, he channeled his demons into spellbinding music that continues to entrance fans to this day.
BONUS TRIVIA: The actors in the band all learned to play for the movie, and all live performances are them playing for real.
Black and white is an excellent choice for this movie, as Joy Division seems to represent a musical grayness between the flamboyant 70s and the colorful 80s. The contrast level is strong throughout, with very little in the way of grain or artifacts to mar the effect. The print is clean and clear, and seems to open our eyes to a forgotten world.
The 5.1 track is mostly quiet, but it offers some strong signals during the musical numbers, of which I wish there were more of. But I understand…this is the story of Ian Curtis, not necessarily Joy Division. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the live performances are strong and sound like small venue shows without a lot of spit and polish.
There is an extensive look at the making of the film, and a running commentary with Anton Corbijn, along with a conversation with the director. There is a still gallery, three extended live performances from the film, a pair of videos from Joy Division and one from The Killers, and two trailers.
Control is a striking, moving, and sad portrait of a man whose brief life was equally those. Sam Riley’s breakthrough performance and Anton Corbijn’s loving attention make this a different but effective musical biopic.