Review by Michael Jacobson
Director: Grant Gee
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Genius Products
Features: Music Video, Additional Interviews
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: June 17, 2008
“…she’s lost control again…”
Joy Division’s career was short lived…they released only two albums before singer Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide. But they stand as an important monument in the field of modern music. In their brief time, they managed to bridge the gap between the anger of punk and the angst of new wave, creating a spacey new kind of sound that paved the way for alternative music and creating an art form that would eventually become so big, it couldn’t very well stay underground.
Joy Division is a comprehensive documentary of the band’s brief flight before getting too close to the sun of success. Directed by Grant Gee, it features interviews with the surviving band members, managers, promoters, journalists and others, who generously reflect back on why this group, whose timeline was merely a flicker in the cosmos of pop music, continues to inspire and influence fans and performers to this day.
They came from the gritty punk scene of Manchester, England, the home of the industrial revolution which, by the 70s, had become victimized by the very modernization it helped to usher in. It had become a dirty town, a poor town, a gloomy expanse of steel and concrete, and a place where guitarist Bernard Sumner remarked he never even saw a tree until he was nine years old.
The allure of the Sex Pistols and their brash, bold assault on the establishment gave hope and fire to the young people of Manchester (and indeed, the world), and Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris would follow in their footsteps, along with Curtis, a quiet poet who would become like an entranced madman on stage.
They started out as Warsaw, and as pure punk, but even as they wrote and played, punk seemed to be coming to an end. Punk was a one note, one emotion form of expression. Anger was one thing, but in order to express more complex emotions, the music would have to evolve.
That’s where the newly christened Joy Division came in. These blue collar boys, who all kept their day jobs, began foraging minimal musical knowledge into a unique sound that built upon punk, but took it in directions that could be beautiful and ugly, enticing and frightening at the same time. Fueled by Curtis’ introspective lyrics about fear, isolation and discomfort, the band built a local following and eventually were able to put their ideas onto a record.
Unknown Pleasures was something of a sonic journey, with a new style of production that would become very recognizable in the 80s. They made TV appearances, toured Europe, and eventually made a second album, Closer, considered by many to be the fulfillment of the promise they made on their debut. America loomed on the horizon.
But it was not to be. Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 20, and his fits, which sometimes occurred right on stage, were so severe as to truly frighten both the band and the audience members. Many now believe he was also a manic depressive. Married in his teens, his relationship with his wife and daughter had been growing strained. Curtis would go from amiable and happy one day to feeling his condition was wrenching away his creativity and his ability to propel the band. On the day before the group was to set sail for the United States, Curtis ended his life.
The three remaining members would continue on as New Order and enjoy even more success, but for years, they rarely if ever played a Joy Division song. Ironically, New Order became another band whose way was paved by the groundbreaking work of Joy Division, and despite their critical and popular acclaim, always seemed by fans to be yet one more group in the shadow of what the three members actually helped pioneer.
The documentary features plenty of archival footage, all well chronicled and labeled so you know where you are and what you’re seeing. You don’t get much of Curtis in his own words…by accounts, he was rather shy and unassuming away from the spotlight. But you do get to see him performing in his prime, though sadly, he never lived long enough to remotely pass that prime.
If you’re a fan of the group, this film will take you back and fill in all the empty pieces you might have missed. If you aren’t, but are a music fan in general, this is still an important film, because it chronicles not only a legendary group, but a highly transition time in pop music history, and the changes that helped close out one decade and enter another. Joy Division could have done so much more had tragedy not prematurely derailed them. But what they did accomplish was astounding, and the echoes of it can still be heard today.
By nature, the video is a mixed bag…it goes from modern interview footage to all kinds of classic stock pieces, including performances and television clips, so the quality is varying. Nothing all that bad; in fact, about what you’d expect given the historical context.
The same can be said for the audio. Hearing some Joy Division music in 5.1 is nice, but it’s mostly dialogue and audio from decades gone past. It’s generally clear, with occasional noise and murkiness based on the age of the footage.
There is a performance video for “Transmission” and about 75 minutes of easily accessible additional interviews.
Joy Division is a solid companion piece to the feature film Control. If you’ve seen one, you’ll want to check out the other. This is a good music documentary that lets you experience a time when music was truly alive and transitional, even if only for a short time.