Judge Gordon Sullivan once got together with a bunch of mates to form a band. They learned that Misery Division is not a good name for a rock band.
The tragic tale of the singer of Joy Division.
It's a rocky road from making music videos to directing a feature film. David Fincher made the leap by joining an existing franchise (Alien 3), with pretty disastrous results, while Spike Jonze took a Charlie Kaufman script and made an indie darling (Being John Malkovich). When it came time for Anton Corbijn (known for his music videos like Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" as well as his "rock" photography) to make a feature, he stuck to his roots and decided on a biopic of the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis. The resulting film, Control, has it all, from beautiful photography to a crack cast. However, after watching the film, I don't feel like I know anything more about Curtis or the band.
Facts of the Case
Joy Division was one of the great shining lights of the post-punk movement that sprang up in Manchester in the late 1970s around Factory Records (see 24 Hour Party People for a nice peek at what Factory meant to music). The story goes that Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), an epileptic with a young bride, was with a bunch of mates at a Sex Pistols show. They were all so captivated they just had to form a band right there. After kicking around for a bit they attracted the attention of Tony Wilson, local media mogul and de facto leader of Factory Records. Their association with Tony led to a record deal, two classic albums, and a host of tours. Behind the scenes. things weren't going so well for Curtis. He was torn between his wife (Samantha Morton, Minority Report)—now the mother of his child—and new love Annika (Alexandra Maria Lara, I Really Hate My Job). To add insult to injury, his epilepsy seemed to be getting worse. Between the grueling tours, his medical condition, and his situation at home, Curtis apparently saw no other choice and hanged himself in May 1980, officially ending Joy Division.
I know movies aren't real, and that goes doubly so for biopics (especially musical ones, with their tendency to rely on myth). Condensing any part of anyone's life into a feature-length film demands cutting, expanding, and rearranging, especially if the goal is tension and drama. This cutting automatically brings with it a point of view, a slant on the material, a thesis if you will. When this slant is evident, it's easier to evaluate the film and understand where it's coming from. Take, for instance, Sid and Nancy. For better or worse Alex Cox and Gary Oldman portray Sid Vicious as an innocent, a babe lost in the big, bad world. Knowing that thesis, it's easier to understand the rest of the film, especially the way Johnny Rotten is portrayed, as the wolf to Sid's babe. This point of view allows me to place the film in the context of the other things I know about the Sex Pistols, and Britpunk in general, which allows me to have a clearer picture of what might have been happening at the time.
Control has no such obvious point of view. Instead, we watch a group of impeccable actors rehearse the lore surrounding Joy Division: that first Sex Pistols show, Tony Wilson signing the contract in blood, the heat being cut in the recording studio, all played out for us to watch. But there doesn't seem to be a perspective, an explanation, or an attempt to make sense of Ian, Joy Division, or the post-punk milieu. I watched but I didn't learn. Curtis & Co. seem as opaque to me now as they did before I saw Control.
The best musical biopics also give us a sense of the living person behind the legend. Gary Oldman (Sid and Nancy), Val Kilmer (The Doors), and even Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) give the audience the sense of a living, breathing person behind the mythic star. Control was like watching the ghost of Ian Curtis parade around for two hours. Sam Riley does a fine job evoking Curtis in look and voice, but the script gives him no life to play with, no interiority. It's an interesting effect, but doesn't make the film great.
Finally, fans should note that the film is based on the biography by Deborah Curtis, who wasn't on the greatest of terms with Ian when he died.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unsurprisingly, the film has visual style to spare, with a rich black-and-white color scheme. For the most part, Corbijn keeps the camera from being ostentatious, and the framing keeps the story moving. Overall, there's a richness and a depth to the film that is impressive to watch, even if you don't care about Joy Division or Ian Curtis at all.
Despite my misgivings about the film, the acting on display is pretty fantastic. Samantha Morton manages to remain sympathetic despite her "outsider" status. Likewise Alexandra Maria Lara stays sympathetic despite the fact that she's "the other woman." Although I preferred Steve Coogan's interpretation, Craig Parkinson does a fine job as Tony Wilson.
Also, this is a pretty fantastic DVD package, part of the Weinsteins' Miriam Collection. The 2.35:1 image looks amazing, with great depth and contrast, while also lacking any obvious compression difficulties. The audio is well-balanced, making dialogue and music easy to hear.
The extras, especially for an indie flick, are pretty extensive. First up, we get a commentary with director Anton Corbijn. He spends much of the track discussing his personal relationship to the material in between discussion of the production and how it was achieved. We also get a standard making-of featuring interviews with cast and crew that runs for 23 minutes. The other big extra is a 13-minute conversation with Anton Corbijn, where he discusses his relationship to Joy Division and the development of the film. There is some overlap between the features, but the information is still interesting. Three extended performances from the film are included, with the songs "Transmission," "Leaders of Men," and "Candidate" shown in their entirety. To compliment these extended performances, we get two videos from Joy Division ("Transmission" and "Atmosphere") and one from The Killers ("Shadowplay"). Rounding out the disc are a still gallery and theatrical trailers.
Despite my criticism, Control is not a bad movie. For those new to the Joy Division story it will bring you up to speed on the short life and tragic death of singer Ian Curtis. For those who are already familiar with the band, this film won't tell you anything new, but you might enjoy watching an Ian lookalike for a few hours. In either case, Control is worth watching, and this excellent Miriam Collection DVD is easy to recommend.
Despite its shortcomings, Control is not guilty because it will hopefully introduce a new generation to the unknown pleasures of Joy Division.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary with Producer/Director Anton Corbijn
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