Friday, December 12, 2008

“Joy Division, you cunt!”

Anton Corbijn's Control tells the story of Joy Division's legendary frontman Ian Curtis. Corbijn has a background as a music video director and rock photographer, including photographing Joy Division and directing the video for their song "Atmosphere." I don't know how well Corbijn knew the members of Joy Division personally, but it is a good sign that the remaining members (AKA New Order) and Curtis's widow Debbie (who wrote the book, Touching from a Distance, on which the film is partly based) all had positive reactions to it.*

Control is shot in gorgeous black and white. Corbijn's experience as a photographer has obviously served him well. The film is beautifully shot, painting the gritty industrial cityscapes of Manchester and Macclesfield with a depth that can be both warm and chilly. The entire film looks like a moving version of just about every picture of Joy Division out there. The entire movie has a stunningly beautiful and artful look. Here is the trailer, if for nothing else, to illustrate the visual style:

Control is not only beautifully shot, but also exceptionally acted. Sam Riley, whose filmography is extremely short and features mainly TV work (and a bit part in 24 Hour Party People as The Fall's Mark E. Smith, oddly enough another movie that contains a fair amount of the Joy Division story), turns out an incredible performance as Ian Curtis. His performance exemplifies, in large part, what made the movie so touching and moving. Throughout the movie there is little to no exposition in the dialogue. There are no grand heart-wrenching speeches or explosive scenes of melodrama. Emotion is portrayed almost entirely through glances, prolonged stares, and silence. While that may sound like it could come across as a brooding emo-esque melodrama, Control's quiet intensity and unspoken emotional tension comes across simply as a realistic depiction of life. And Riley is not the only one up to the task, the whole cast lives up to the challenges of this cinéma vérité

It is also worth mentioning, while on the subject of realism, the actors playing the members of Joy Division all performed their own music. They all learned the instruments of their respective characters, so the scenes of the band performing live are the actors actually playing the music live on camera. Given Joy Division's reputation as a live band, the concert scenes are crucial and on film they are fantastic. The members of the band with Riley as the spastic, crooning frontman, effectively recreate the legendary intensity of Joy Division's shows. (Obviously, I never had the opportunity to see Joy Division live, seeing as I'm not English and not in my mid-40s. I just wanted to make that clear.)

There are problems with the movie. Generally, the kind of problems you would find in most biopics. It is factually dubious. While I think it does a fair job in representing all of the characters, it does buy into the Ian Curtis as Martyr mentality at times. Though it is a film about Ian Curtis, specifically, and not Joy Division, I don't know that you could walk away from it even knowing the names of the other three guys in the band. But these issues, though valid, are minor, and the movie on the whole is able to avoid a lot of the biopic movie clichés. The film on the whole is fantastic.

It bears mentioning that I am an ardent Joy Division fan. I'm not sure if that makes me harder to please or easier to excite. Molly, who was not familiar with Joy Division, watched it with me, and she liked it as well, though maybe not as much as me. She said she appreciated the ambiguity of the characters and the movie's ability to eschew most of the biopic clichés. So, for what it's worth, a diehard Joy Division fan thought Control was fantastic, and a non-fan also liked it.

And seeing as I can't just prattle on about a movie about a man in a band that I love and not give you some of their music, here is Joy Division's first television appearance, on Granada Reports in 1978 (a performance that is recreated in the movie, by the way):

[*Note: I remember reading this somewhere when the film was released, but a quick and lazy fact-checking search didn't turn up anything. So I gave up. Take this tacit endorsement by New Order and Debbie Curtis with a grain of salt.]


alt.binaries.ebooksTOOMS said...

Nice review. I may not have liked it quite as much as you, but I definitely agree with everything you said about unspoken emotion and pretty photography. I just couldn't put it as clearly as you, at least not tonight. And good call with cleaning up my quotes. I totally meant to use the word eschew when I was talking about what I thought of it. You're the Artemis to my Charlie.

See you tomorrow. I'll be on your doorstep between 10:30 am and noon, filthy and probably also crying with bottles of whatever I stumble across at speedway mart.

alt.binaries.ebooksTOOMS said...

Haha, I forgot my name was Tooms on this. In case you're confused, God, it's me, Molly.

Scott said...

I'm just a small town girl who moved to the big city with big dreams. Just to find out, the only way to make it in the big city is to shake it. And that's what I do. At the Coyote Ugly.

Scott said...

Also, I look forward to some late morning boozin' and cryin'.

Just, when you go to Speedway, try to avoid picking up any Mad Dog or Boones Farm. Or Schiltz. God, Schiltz is awful...

Brad said...

Can you imagine drinking Schlitz and listening to Joy Division? Depressing wouldn't begin to describe the soul-crushing Saturday night that would be.