Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K
Coming hot on the heels of last year's sleeper hit Control (dir. Anton Corbijn) is Joy Division (dir. Grant Gee). Although in production at the same time as last year's award winning biopic starring Sam Riley and Samantha Morton, this film, as a documentary, seeks for a more probing and informative approach. Unfortunately, whereas Control premiered at Cannes, became a critics' darling and went on to general worldwide release, Joy Division's release is more muted, and could easily be overlooked. It had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2007, and has only recently been released, in a limited, arthouse run, in selected countries. In the USA, it has been effectively buried by the Weinstein Company (who promoted Control big-time), and stumbled onto DVD release on June 17. However, does it suffer from proximity to its dramatic brother?
For those who are unfamiliar with the Joy Division mythos, here's a quick primer. 4 young lads from the Salford/Manchester area of the North West of England formed a band in 1976/1977 during the d.i.y. period of punk. They recorded 2 albums, a few singles, and were set to make it big, but on the eve of their American tour in 1980, singer Ian Curtis, who had a history of complications with epilepsy, committed suicide. The band subsequently split up, but those left behind (Guitarist Bernard Sumner, Bassist Peter Hook and Drummer Stephen Morris) soon reformed under the name New Order, and enjoyed considerable success and acclaim in the 1980s with synth-pop college rock hits such as 'Blue Monday' and 'Bizarre Love Triangle'. Joy Division, as one of the first bands to move beyond the restrictive, directionless angst of 'pure' UK punk, were hugely influential on post-punk music, and a lot of the independently-minded rock of the last 20 years.
The documentary is billed as Joy Division 'in their own words'. This is quite true. Much of the film's length is given over to in-depth talking heads with the surviving members of the band, as well as major players in the band's formation, maturation and legacy. This is fitting, as the band, with their crystallized and near-perfect output are one of the more mythologized of the rock era. Hook, Sumner and Morris are charismatic, intelligent and witty in their interviews. They are mostly reclusive people in terms of the pop music spotlight, and it is a real treat to see them on screen for significant amounts of time. They also inject the film with a self-effacing humor which seeks to deflate some of the documentary's more serious high-brow aspirations. Also featured are interviews with the recently-deceased label boss Tony Wilson, who was always a pleasure to watch, as well as with sleeve designer Peter Saville and Manchester-born writer and critic Paul Morley. One of the film's main strengths is its varied and well-selected group of interviewees. The aforementioned were the no-brainers; extra colour, individuality and identity for this project is found in the additions of musical contemporaries, such as Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) and Pete Shelley (The Buzzcocks), and even relative 'citizens', such as Annike Honore (Ian Curtis' lover, played by Alexandra Maria Lara in Control), Terry Mason (original-drummer-turned-roadie) and photographer Kevin Cummins (whose iconic shots now grace the lamentably redundant collection The Best of Joy Division).
Director Gee manages to weave a tapestry of voices, and for the first half of the film manages to strike a balance between the band members' stories, and the mythos as experienced by accomplices and onlookers. The visual style is almost consistently brilliant (although obvious use of iTunes and iPod UIs is rather corny); archived footage of television appearances, even low quality bootlegs, make up a vital history of the band's growth. This additional footage is a revelation, as live recordings (especially filmed) of the band are scarce, and mostly the jurisdiction of the hardcore fan. Equally, the use of interview material with now-deceased players, including Curtis, but also including the influential producer Martin Hannett, manager Rob Gretton and legendary radio DJ John Peel, fills in the blanks. The film initially feels well researched, and well narrated.
The jolt of singer Ian Curtis' suicide, barely 3 years into their career, has given the band, and their work, an unmistakable air of tragedy. Indeed, the story is one of the most repeated in British music history, and appears not only in Control, but also in the post-modern flick 24 Hour Party People (2002, dir. Michael Winterbottom). It is a shame that this documentary has been made in the shadow of these two films, as both focused much more on the troubled life of Ian Curtis, whose tragic death acts as a black hole for any Joy Division discussion. Like Kurt Cobain's drug addiction and suicide affecting the Nirvana story, this event skews and blurs any sense of objective or truly informative documentary work. The final third of the film takes on the air of the dramatic, with long sections dedicated to the reactions of band members, friends and lovers to Curtis' death. This is necessary, but it cannot compete with the narrative tension of Control, and after the measured handling of Joy Division's debut album Unknown Pleasures, the discussion of second album and potential masterwork Closer is discussed only in relation to Curtis' decline towards suicide.
Of course, the death of the lead singer is an important development in the band's history, and effectively ended the group. However, the focus is uneven, disrespectful, even exploitative. Whereas Control was an Ian Curtis biopic, Joy Division strives to be the final word on the band. However, this last act of the film is only concerned with Curtis' mental state, illness, and his troubled lyrical genius. It is a shame, as Gee rejects the previously anecdotal and openly, generally appreciatve approach in favour of recollection and remembrance. Furthermore, this is unfair, as the other band members are forced to dredge up and relate memories of this traumatic experience. This approach will leave no doubt that Joy Division were an important band, but the sense that Curtis was in any way a unique creative force in the musical process would be false. Not enough time is given to an equal appreciation of Sumner's minimal, yet effective guitar style (and later, adoption of keyboards), or Hook's bass playing (possibly the most distinctive-sounding bassist in rock), even Morris' surprisingly complex drum patterns (and very early utilisation of electronics). At time of release, the band and label were worried that Closer would be damned because of the bad vibe caused by Curtis' suicide. Nevertheless, it endured and was well-received. However, the approach to Joy Division as exhibited towards the end of this film merely results in affirming a one-dimensional morbidity.
Joy Division isn't as summative as it first seems to be. The film grinds to a halt around Curtis' suicide, and concludes with a messy flash-forward to 2000s-era New Order performing Joy Division songs (badly) and an awkward link between Joy Division and Manchester's development as a city. This is a shame, as it further spotlights Ian Curtis as Joy Division, and overlooks the interesting conflicts revolving around New Order's formation and early work (debut album Movement, and debut single 'Ceremony', are still very 'Joy Division' in sound). One feels that Gee and his collaborators missed the point, and the opportunity afforded by interviews and archive footage – very promising early on in the film – is squandered in favor of empty morbidity and rehashes of what is best left to more artistic, fictional approaches to the story.
Inevitably, this over-exposure diminishes this documentary's overall impact and worth. The point of saturation for all things Joy Division has probably been exceeded. In the last ten years, fans and the public have been faced with one boxset, 2 live albums, 3 reissues, a best of, and 3 films directly inspired by Joy Division. On the evidence of this film, which is half-brilliant, half-disposable, maybe it would be best to put the mythos to rest.