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Joy Division

Becker Films

Joy Division is a name that's been popping up lately in album reviews for modern rock bands like The Killers, Doves, Editors, Kasabian, and California's newly found gem The Airborne Toxic Event, to name only a few. The years that Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis spent with the band from the age of 17 until the time of his death at 23 in 1980, are immortalized in the first motion picture directed by famed Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn entitled Control. With a screenplay written by Matt Greenhalgh and a story inspired by the book from Curtis' wife Debbie Curtis called Touching From A Distance, Control provides audiences with relevant insight into the person that Ian Curtis was, the impetus for his poetry and song lyrics, and the conditions that led him to hang himself in his own home at 77 Barton Street in Manchester, England with a drying ring, a common kitchen appliance used in the '70s for drying garments. According to Control, Curtis hanged himself subsequent to experiencing an epileptic seizure, a disease that he suffered from as a young man.

The movie was recently put out on DVD and includes a Special Features section that gives audiences an understanding of the recurring themes in the movie and points out the significance of Joy Division's music on the world map. After watching the feature presentation, it is worth checking out the film with Corbijn's commentary in the Special Features segment. This will make pieces in the film that have elements of symbolism in its imagery, subtle gestures that are laced with hidden meanings, and clips of foreshadowing like when Ian Curtis' mind jumps to a shot of a drying ring while under hypnosis, start to make sense to you. The film has a tendency to carry the plot lines and areas of conflict through visuals rather than with dialogue. Afterall, Corbijn is a photographer by trade so he has spent his life using images to tell someone's story. For this reason, you need to watch the movie from the perspective of an artist, otherwise many components in the movie will go right over your head.

The visuals are often abstract and presumptive like when Curtis is walking to work with the word "HATE" written on the back of his jacket. Episodes like this make the movie feel obscure and intangible to understand until a light goes off in your head that Ian Curtis did not hate people, but hated himself and felt like he was an incubator for hate. What helps drive this sentiment into the film is the love triangle that Greenhalgh displays between Ian Curtis, his wife Debbie, and his girlfriend Annik Honore while the band resigns to being a background figure in this story. The actors' believability in their roles is extraordinary and they manage to consume their characters fully. Ironically, the actors who played the band members of Joy Division seem like flies on the wall in the movie. They are secondary characters to the main plot line of Curtis' love triangle, but without Joy Division, Curtis' life would have no meaning to the world. The surviving members of Joy Division in real life went on to form New Order after Ian Curtis' death, but the band never lost sight of what they created with Curtis, and that is evident in New Order's music.

Corbijn reveals in the commentary section that all of the actors who played the members of Joy Division really played their instruments, and that made them extraordinary in their roles. They were excellent at capturing what Warner Brothers Records, Korda Marshall and an executive producer on Control described about Joy Division in the Special Features section, "It was majestic music in a doomy gloomy time." Joy Division offered fans a source of escapism, and the actors who played the band were excellent at capturing the magnetism of Joy Division's sound.

The lead character of Ian Curtis is played by actor Sam Riley, whose penetrating performance is beyond words, especially when he had to perform epileptic fits. Corbijn tells in his commentary that someone from the Epilepsy Foundation was always on the set when they were filming these scenes, so the fits could be accurately portrayed. He took this area of Curtis' life very seriously. Corbijn expresses about the actor Sam Riley that he saw an innocence and a freshness in him, which Corbijn related to Ian Curtis whom he met when he photographed Joy Division for different press outlets in 1979 and early 1980. Corbijn was able to transpose the images that he recalled about the band into the film. Corbijn remembers seeing Curtis as a poet and claims "Joy Division is where he spread his gospel." Corbijn drives this point into the movie when Joy Division meet their manager, Rob Gretton, who is superbly played by Toby Kebbell, for the first time and he raises his arms in the air and shouts, "Hallelujah, I'm a believer of Joy Division."

Corbijn's impressions from those encounters with Ian Curtis influenced the criteria which he set for the actor who would play Curtis. He says in his interview segment that Sam Riley "appeared unactor-like, a very real person," and cites that Riley had "very good intuitive reactions to situations." Plus, Sam Riley could really sing the songs. Riley channeled his instincts when he had to do the scene where Ian Curtis confronts BBC's television host Tony Wilson, credibly played by Craig Parkinson. It is a scene that shows Ian Curtis' ballsy approach to handling the industry's brass as he tells off Tony Wilson who did not give Joy Division a good slot on Wilson's program. Wilson's program televised music performances to British audiences, and Corbijn explains that band's needed to be played early in the show or they risked not being seen by A&R representatives who could sign them to a record deal.

Although Sam Riley plays the main character, it is Samantha Morton who has top billing for playing Curtis' wife Debbie. Morton portrays the wife as a simple woman who wants a common life. Her domesticated character is in direct opposition to the party life attached to Curtis' world of post-punk artists. The rifts in Curtis' marriage availed him to pursue an intimate relationship with a music journalist from Belgium named Annik Honore, who is played by the softly spoken and doe-eyed beauty, Alexandra Maria Lara. Both the real Debbie Curtis and Annik Honore lent pieces of their story to Corbijn and Greenhalgh, which added such truisms to the movie like the scene where Debbie comes across a vinyl record of Siouxsie And The Banshees with Annik's name and phone number written on it. Corbijn shares in his interview on the DVD that he learned from both women that Ian Curtis always wrote his words in capital letters, so Corbijn put that in the movie.

Corbijn filmed at Curtis' actual brick house on 77 Barton Street in Manchester, England, and Curtis' actual work place at the Employment Exchange Office just a few blocks away from his home. Corbijn filmed many shots on location, taking audiences through the actual places in Ian Curtis' life. Another truism that Corbijn included in the movie was having the walls of Ian Curtis' room painted Manchester City Blue, although audiences could not tell because the entire movie is presented in black and white. Corbijn imparts that filming the movie in color and then flipping it to black and white gave them better control over the effects in the images.

Corbijn researched footage available of Joy Division in the public domain, and he re-created some of those shows with the actors playing Joy Division's tunes "Transmission," "Leader Of Men," and "Candidate." Sam Riley actually sang on these takes including the scene where Curtis is singing "Isolation" in a recording booth. Corbijn also re-created a Joy Division show that was filmed for BBC-TV showing a canvass sheet behind the band on stage with the image of their album cover for Unknown Pleasures which was released in 1979. The enlarged image with layers of wavy lines forming a thong of mountain peaks somehow became the image that many people still associate with Joy Division, similarly to the way that the image of big, luscious red lips are related to the Rolling Stones.

Control skims the surface of Ian Curtis' life from the moment he dabbles in writing poetry and song lyrics to the day of his death. Corbijn closes the film with Debbie Curtis holding her daughter with Ian in her arms in front of their brick house on Barton Street crying as the camera panes upward to the sky. And as if on cue, black smoke coming out from a nearby chimney is seen bellowing up to the sky symbolically transforming Ian Curtis' body into vapors heading up to Heaven.

Control is called a biopic, but it really is an artistic endeavor that interprets essential pieces of Ian Curtis' life. Control tells very little about the [other] band members of Joy Division, but it speaks volumes about the tender souls in this world, like Ian Curtis, who want to please everyone, but they only see how people hate them. Ian Curtis' story is shared by every person who struggles with life changing decisions that have the potential of unhinging their stability and causing one to lose control. Ian Curtis' music lives on in every person who seeks a sonic escape that offers sanctuary, and New Order continues where Curtis's journey left off.

-Susan Frances

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