The trouble with making a movie about somebody famous, especially somebody who died famously young as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis did, is that we know the whole story before we walk in.
The biopic is a genre that tends to be riddled with clichés anyway, with those about self-destructive music gods seemingly more prone to the pitfalls of obvious oversimplification.
All of which makes “Control” so refreshing, despite the dismal subject matter.
The visually striking feature debut from longtime rock photographer Anton Corbijn, shot in grainy, stark black-and-white, isn’t really about the rise and fall of Joy Division’s lead singer, who killed himself at 23 in May 1980. Yes, there is a ton of the band’s distinctively dark music in here, along with some David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Sex Pistols, all influences on Curtis (played hauntingly by intense newcomer Sam Riley).
It’s more of a psychological drama about a man suffering from depression and doubt who felt confused, overwhelmed — phenomena that any of us can relate to who’ve never performed live before packed, screaming crowds. Corbijn, working from a script by Matt Greenhalgh based on the memoir “Touching From a Distance” by Curtis’ widow, Deborah (played by Samantha Morton), hits the key moments in Curtis’ life but doesn’t try to impose any cheap pop psychology in examining his decline.
Curtis was basically a quiet, decent kid from the working-class English town of Macclesfield, outside Manchester. He spent his teenage days in the late ’70s listening to records and smoking in his room. Just the way Corbijn frames a shot suggests Curtis’ early sense of isolation — he’s a small figure walking across a wide-angle view of the neighborhood, he’s rendered as a head and shoulders sitting on the couch in the bottom corner of a room, a bit player even in his own life. (Martin Ruhe provides the cinematography; surprisingly, this is his first film, too.)
But he loved music, and a wannabe rock star was obviously bubbling up within him, a sensation he’d find validated after attending a Sex Pistols show with some friends and forming a band.
Warsaw, as they called themselves during those early gigs before changing their name, consisted of Curtis, Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), Peter Hook (Joe Anderson) and Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway). (The three remaining members would go on to form New Order after Curtis’ suicide.) Influential TV host Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) noticed them and became a fan, as did the brash Rob Gretton (a hilariously no-nonsense Toby Kebbell) who pretty much forced himself on them and became their manager.
On most of the songs (including “She’s Lost Control”), performed in rehearsal halls and on stage, the actors are actually playing their own music and they’re eerily dead-on. Riley especially captures Curtis’ jerky demeanor, the deep drone of his voice contrasted with the wild, almost violent swinging of his lanky arms.
During these years he also met and fell in love with the sweet, shy Debbie, the girlfriend of a friend, and in a fit of romantic impulse asked her to marry him. In no time they had a daughter, Natalie. While on the road soon after that, though, he met and fell for Belgian journalist Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), who seemed independent and exciting and totally different from the doting wife and mother waiting for him at home.
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To paraphrase Joy Division’s best-known song, love would tear him apart. The guilt of infidelity ate at him, and his increasing moodiness was magnified by his epilepsy medication, which he mixed with alcohol. He hanged himself in the kitchen one morning after a long night of boozing, just before the band was about to tour the United States for the first time; Debbie was the one who found him.
So that’s it. Corbijn demystifies Curtis, who since has achieved iconic status for his gloomy persona. He even handles the discovery of Curtis’ death with delicate detachment.
Fans of the band may not learn much from “Control,” but the film does serve as a reminder of just how influential Joy Division remains today, despite having released only two albums. Just turn on any alternative radio station — you can hear them in Interpol, The Killers, She Wants Revenge and countless other bands trying to sound just as deep and meaningful.