Written by: Erik Beck, Special to CC2K
Many of the key scenes in the film Control seem familiar, like you’ve seen them somewhere before. Ian Curtis calling Tony Wilson a cunt for not having them on his show. Tony signing Joy Division to a contract with his own blood. Ian collapsing on stage in an epileptic fit kicking off the Derbyshire Riot. Ian watching Herzog’s Strozeck before hanging himself. They seem similar, yet somehow different.
Of course you have seen them before, if you’ve seen 24 Hour Party People. But that was a comedy and Control is not a comedy. It’s a straight forward musical biopic. And I do mean straight forward. Photographed in black and white, with musical highlights of a career spread throughout the home story of the musician, this is very much the kind of biographical picture Warner Bros was so famous for in the late 30s and early 40s, except they never would have made a film that was so god awful depressing.
I’m a Joy Division fan. The first time I heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” I knew it was one of the greatest songs in rock and roll. I’d read Deborah Curtis’ book, knew the story, knew the music, had loved 24 Hour Party People. And then I watched the film (on video, because it blinked out of theaters in a week) and thought, there’s got to be more than this.
Anton Corbijn, making his first feature film (he’s done a number of videos) had a distinct advantage coming to this project: he had known Ian Curtis, had photographed him in the late 70s. It seems he had a theme: I want to show how good the music was, but I don’t want to romanticize the man. And that’s exactly what the film does. You can see the brilliance that both shaped the music and that drove him to his death.
It is said that editors make better directors than cinematographers; cinematographers can make a good looking film, but editors have learned how to make a film tell a story. What does that suggest about someone like Corbijn, who’s world famous for rock photography (most notably the cover of Joshua Tree and the great picture of Michael Stipe in the water from Automatic for the People)? Perhaps his direction, in beautiful black and white, but pedantic in storytelling style is the problem. Or maybe he just doesn’t have a sense of humor.
The lack of humor is actually the biggest problem, not because you can’t make a film that’s depressing, but because we already have a first rate comedy that’s looked at this point in time. I’m not sure how much less disappointed I would have been with Control if I didn’t have 24 Hour Party People to compare it to. But that film already laid claim to many of the quintessential moments in the history of Joy Division and also remembered the important role of casting a real person: if the person was odd looking in real life, they can’t be good looking on film. Sam Riley gives a solid performance as someone driven by deep demons who feels betrayed by life and body, but his good looks bely the odd draw of Ian Curtis.
The strength of Control lies in the other side of the story. By telling the domestic story of Ian Curtis’ short life, with a fantastic performance by Samantha Morten, who in her thirties is a more convincing teenager than many actual teenage actresses, we get an idea of But in the end, that’s not the story that belongs on screen. Curtis married too young, had a daughter, was haunted by inner demons and killed himself. This is not only the Kurt Cobain biography, but describes many people in the world, and as tragic as it is, it doesn’t need a movie.
Jon Savage, the great rock writer whose England’s Dreaming is the definitive book on the punk era that Joy Division came out of wrote in the liner notes to Permanent, the 1995 Joy Division best of, “The power of Joy Division lies, not in programmatic biography, but in an intuitive navigation between darkness and light.” And that is the difference between the two films. Control is all programmatic biography, all darkness. Just after Ian’s suicide in 24 Hour Party People, Tony turns to the screen and tells us how Ian’s music and death make people think it was all dark moments. But he prefers to remember the last Factory night at the Russell Club, and we got a minute of Joy Division singing “Louie Louie” and we can remember that there was light in the story.