CONTROL directed by Anton Corbijn, written by Matt Greenhalgh from the autobiography by Deborah Curtis, with Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara and Craig Parkinson. A Weinstein/Alliance release. 121 minutes. Opens Friday (October 26). Rating: NNN
Why are there three feature films about Joy Division?
(Okay, two and a half. Halfway through Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, when Joy Division singer/songwriter Ian Curtis commits suicide, it turns into a movie about Tony Wilson's discovery and promotion of Happy Mondays.)
There's only one movie with the Clash (Rude Boy), and none about Talking Heads, bands as influential as Joy Division. Of course, neither Joe Strummer nor David Byrne had the mythological sense to die ridiculously young.
This isn't a knock on Joy Division. They were a great band, and Unknown Pleasures was one of the most striking debut albums of the 70s.
Control takes its point of view from its source material, Touching From A Distance, Deborah Curtis's memoir of her life with Ian. It's the story of a sad young man who joined a band, became one of the great trance/shaman performers and then, depressed about his marriage/divorce and increasingly alarming epileptic seizures, committed suicide at the age of 23 on the eve of the band's departure for its first American tour.
It's a legitimate point of view, but it leads to one of the most peculiarly structured musician biographies ever. First off, Deborah Curtis didn't marry a genius or a performer, but a schoolmate who was going to work for the civil service, a job he held well into the band's early successes.
She's a nice girl from the north of England who wants to settle down with a nice fella and have some nice kids, and suddenly she's married to this dervish who utterly mystifies her. Full praise to Samantha Morton as Deborah. When she looks at Ian (Sam Riley) onstage, what's on her face is confusion.
Control isn't so much about Joy Division as it is about Ian Curtis. It reduces his bandmates to extras in his life, which is how his wife perceives them. The film's subtext is that rock music basically fucked up her life.
This may explain why Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris were so cooperative when Grant Gee came round for his documentary, Joy Division, which like Control had its North American premiere at TIFF. Gee let them reassert themselves as a band, not three guys who hung out with Mr. Suicidal Genius. (If the folks who handle Control are smart, they'll buy the rights to Gee's documentary and put it on the DVD.)
The type of thing you find in a band biography like The Doors or the Beatles-in-Hamburg picture Backbeat how the band got together, how it found its sound, the relationships inside the band is simply absent in Control.
That said, the film offers a charismatic performance by Riley. He's a remarkable find if you're looking for an actor to play, well, Ian Curtis. Tall and thin to the point of gauntness, he's almost mastered Curtis's spastic chicken dancing style.
And Control is drop-dead gorgeous. Anton Corbijn makes his directorial debut at age 52 after decades as a rock photographer (he shot iconic photos of Joy Division in the late 70s) and video director.
German cinematographer Martin Ruhe's wide-screen black-and-white photography glows even when the things in the frame are ugly, and Corbijn and production designer Chris Roope have found some of the least appealing backstage spaces known to second-string bands.
If you want to convince your kids that the pop music game ain't all glamour and limos, take them to Control.