The facts: Joy Division was perhaps the most essential band to emerge from the crazily fecund Manchester scene of the late Seventies. During their truncated lifespan they birthed a pummeling music that was something like the noise from a particularly hideous new building’s construction site, augmented by lyrics that spoke of emotional glaciation and a Ballardian sense of breakdown, intoned in a beyond-the-grave timbre by frontman Ian Curtis, a baby-faced Macclesfield pill-popper with a Vulcan haircut. Wracked by depression and intensifying epilepsy, Curtis committed suicide in 1980 at age 23, on the eve of his increasingly successful group’s first American tour, leaving a wife, a mistress, a baby, and two albums behind.
Photographer, designer, and music video director Anton Corbijn, whose relationship with Joy Division goes back as far as a ’79 photo shoot, makes his feature filmmaking debut with “Control,” the story of Curtis’s life. It’s no slapdash fatuity on the order of “24 Hour Party People,” which exploited Curtis’s suicide in passing as another tour stop through Mancunian mythology, nor quite the film to convince me of the necessity for an Ian Curtis biopic. A somber work, it’s made with respect that brakes shy of reverence, lensed in that most striking of formats, widescreen black-and-white, in coarse-grained compositions that mostly stand stock-still, making much of the effect of milky Northern light filtering through the curtains of austere council flats. Corbijn shows a good casting instinct, not only in his choice of Leeds actor/ musician Sam Riley, who plays Curtis–he has the squelched-up face and pert frown–but also in Toby Kebbell, as manager/comic relief Rob Gretton and Craig Parkinson, who gives an appealingly foppish take on recently deceased Factory Records head Tony Wilson (scene veteran John Cooper-Clarke also gets a memorable cameo, reading his poem “Evidently Chicken Town.”)
The source material is “Touching from a Distance,” a 1995 memoir by Ian’s widow, Deborah (played here by Samantha Morton). It’s a fine, plainspoken book, offering a feminine perspective usually bypassed in the Great Man-centered world of rock journalism; she details the couple’s rushed marriage as teens, the subsequent rise of Joy Division, Curtis’s increasing illness, and an eventual domestic disintegration sped up by a protracted affair with a Belgian fan. The depiction of smothering conjugal entrapment that Corbijn creates as Curtis’s success draws him above his provincial origins is handled in rather obvious fashion: Ian framed through the crib’s bars, symbolically imprisoned; frowsy Debbie forever beseeching her husband to “come to bed.”
But the essential point upon which the relationship breaks comes across–Ian’s faint embarrassment at this doting, thick-waisted, peasant blouse-wearing wife, who recalls his anonymous adolescence; his yearning for a lithe, dark Continental girl better suited to accessorize his new life; his self-disgust at his disloyalty. It’s difficult to imagine a film adding much to the existent wealth of JD lore, but “Control” at least catches glimpses of its subject, and allows the music (competently rerecorded live, by the actors) screen time enough to breathe, and seem as though it’s being played out for the first time.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and writes for Stop Smiling and the Village Voice.]