The Manchester, England-based rock band Joy Division was never a chart-topping monster, but thanks to its early punk-based sound and the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, it’s sure been getting a lot of cinematic attention lately. Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film 24 Hour Party People featured the band as it related to the tale of the late Tony Wilson, who practically created the late-’70s, early-’80s Manchester music scene. Recently shown at the Toronto Film Festival was Joy Division, a documentary about the group (which morphed into the hugely successful New Order), and now we have Control, a beautifully shot, moving and truly engrossing film about Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s tortured lead singer.
Played with mesmerizing sympathy and intensity by newcomer Sam Riley, Curtis comes off as one of those dreamy, artistic types who never really found himself until he hooked up with the lads who eventually became one of hottest rock bands north of the Thames.
But as the film makes clear, Curtis, whose spastic concert movements became a cult item in themselves, was an extremely tormented soul. Married at a very young age to Debbie (Samantha Morton), just about the first woman who showed any interest in him, he soon had to juggle fatherhood, a full-time gig at an employment agency, and his burgeoning rock star career. Plus, he also managed to fall in love with Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian rock journalist, and was diagnosed as an epileptic.
Between the tug of two lovers, the demands of encroaching fame and his debilitating illness (there are several very scary grand mal seizures in the film, at least one while Curtis is onstage), it all proved too much for the boy. A talented songwriter whose lyrics often dealt with downbeat, if not utterly depressing, subjects, Curtis wound up killing himself at the age of 23.
It’s a sad story, but one told in brilliant, widescreen black-and-white by first-time feature director Anton Corbijn, a rock photographer whose transition to narrative cinema is absolutely effortless. “Gorgeous” doesn’t begin to describe the painterly look of Control, its subtle shadings reflecting both the somber tone of the tale, and the washed-out, industrial look of its setting.
Yet this is not just a film about pretty pictures. The acting is outstanding down the line, musical numbers (all performed by the cast) are so compelling they seem to have been culled from real Joy Division concert footage, and in lead actor Riley, Corbijn has lucked upon a talented and charismatic performer who paints a thoroughly in-depth portrait of Curtis and his sad life.
Is Control one of the best rock bios ever? It’s not exactly a subgenre filled with deathless artistry, so the answer is probably “yes.” But that would be damning this picture with faint praise. Control is, first and foremost, a terrific film about a complex human being.