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
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.
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