Thursday, December 13, 2007


Well, what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can.
The past is now part of my future;
The present is well out of hand.”
-- Joy Division
“Heart and Soul”

On May 18, 1980, Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, hung himself, leaving a wife, a baby girl, and three quarters of a band that would, in one of the most miraculous resurrections in musical history, subsequently become New Order.
Anton Corbijn’s feature film debut, Control, based on the biography Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division (written by Curtis’ widow, Deborah) is the story behind that suicide.

Kicking off with a voice-over of lyrics from “Heart and Soul” and covering a period of time running from 1973—when Curtis (played by Sam Riley) was a 16-year old experimenting with prescription drugs and listening to David Bowie—to that fateful day, just one day before Joy Division was set to leave for a 2-week US tour that was to be their big break, Control moves fluidly through the highlights and turning points of Curtis’ later life and career.
From his early marriage to Debbie (the amazing Samantha Morton), to the band’s debut as Warsaw, to the recording of the first Joy Division EP, An Ideal For Living—the studio time for which was paid for from out of the Curtis’ pockets—to Curtis’ first serious epileptic fit (and its unassuming precursor), to the attempted overdose and the infamous April 8 Derby Hall gig/riot, Control charts the young singer’s movements as he dealt with the pressures of marriage and fatherhood, and the life of a struggling musician diagnosed with epilepsy.
The fact that music video director Corbijn helms Control is only apt, given that he was actually there, running in the band’s circle, at the very time it was all taking place. In fact, Control feels rather like a family reunion, as two of the film’s co-producers are Deborah Curtis and Tony Wilson (played here by Craig Parkinson), who ran the legendary Factory Records, to which Joy Division, and later, New Order, were signed.

While Matt Greenhalgh’s script does not conveniently underline the precise psychology of Curtis (we never really understand the exact motivations behind some of his impulsive decisions—let’s get married, let’s have a baby), Corbijn nonetheless presents us with an affecting, impressionistic portrait of the young, tortured soul that was Ian Curtis.
And while his relationships with the two women in his life (wife Debbie and lover Annik Honore—played by Alexandra Maria Lara, also in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth) may make him seem to some an indecisive twat, what is undeniable is the anxiety he felt in the double-headed shadow of his epilepsy and the side effects of the medication he was taking.
Clearly, Control’s cinematographer, Martin Ruhe, helps things along tremendously, preserving Corbijn’s photographer’s eye for composition, while capturing the emotions behind the moment.
But while Control may look pretty, what seals the deal are the performances.

First off, though both Morton and Lara have notable performances here, Control is quite clearly Sam Riley’s show.
It is perhaps only proper that Riley’s Ian Curtis is largely an enigmatic figure throughout most of the film’s running time. After all, if his own wife and lover could not fathom him then, who’s to say that an audience a quarter of a century removed from the events in question could do so?
Playing a character that remains to a certain extent oblique while at the same time not frustrating and alienating the audience is a delicate balancing act, and in this light, Riley’s performance is undeniably impressive. While introverted and moody in the regular world, on-stage or in the studio, performing Joy Division standards, his Curtis is frighteningly magnetic, as was the real one.
The fact that all, save four, of the Joy Division songs featured in Control, were actually sung and performed by Riley and his fellow actors—James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Sumner (who would go on to be New Order’s front man), Brothers of the Head’s Harry Treadaway as drummer Stephen Morris, and Across the Universe’s Joe Anderson as bassist Peter Hook—speaks volumes to the amount of preparation and level of dedication all concerned had for the film and its subject matter.

Of the three original Joy Division tracks used—“No Love Lost,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and “Atmosphere”—the latter two are deployed rather effectively during a couple of key sequences.
The choice to have The Killers cover “Shadowplay” (which plays at the tail of the end credits) is curious though, given how Riley and company so skillfully and hauntingly channeled the ghost of Joy Division over the course of the film.

Still, even with that wee niggle as the end credits wrap up, Control remains a brilliant and moving piece of cinema, capturing a singular moment in pop culture history, as the darkly bleak beauty of Joy Division’s music reached out to legions of the alienated and disenfranchised, influencing and inspiring a wide array of musicians who would come after, from U2 to Trent Reznor to The Smashing Pumpkins.
And though Control may not completely answer the questions that have arisen around the mythical figure of Ian Curtis, it nonetheless sheds a light on that time, and on the people who lived through it. It’s a fitting testament to the artistry and humanity of Ian Curtis, as well as a testament to the band that was, that served as the foundation for the band that it eventually came to be.

Control is also the perfect companion piece to Michael Winterbottom’s awesome 24 Hour Party People, which chronicles the rise and fall of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. (The first half of 24 Hour Party People can be seen as the Joy Division era, while the second half can be viewed as the New Order era, though there are some Happy Mondays thrown in there as well.)
Now if only someone would write and direct a film that follows the aftermath of Curtis’ death, as Barney, Steve, and Hooky picked up the pieces and rose from the ashes as New Order, recruiting Gillian Gilbert—who actually appears in Control, as played by Lotti Closs—along the way. That would make for a fantastic cinematic troika.*

Coda: Given how he ended up, it’s tempting to say that Curtis was ultimately a weak human being, but that would be an unfair and gross oversimplification. No one will ever really know what happened during his final hours, and what his thoughts were before he took his life.
In the end, perhaps it’s only right that, in all probability, all the answers the curious may seek are in Joy Division’s music.
Perhaps they always have been, if only we listen hard enough.

“I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen […] We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn’t take it seriously. That’s how stupid we were.”
-- Tony Wilson (May 2005)

“This sounds awful but it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics. You’d find yourself thinking, ‘Oh my God, I missed this one.’ Because I’d look at Ian’s lyrics and think how clever he was putting himself in the position of someone else. I never believed he was writing about himself. Looking back, how could I have been so bleedin’ stupid? Of course he was writing about himself. But I didn’t go in and grab him and ask, ‘What’s up?’ I have to live with that.”
-- Stephen Morris (August 2007)

“And we would go on as though nothing was wrong,
And hide from these days we remained all alone.
Staying in the same place, just staying out the time.
Touching from a distance,
Further all the time.”
-- Joy Division

* As much as some of this is covered in 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom’s film is still one about Tony Wilson’s life, and the bits of the New Order saga that are in there, are present because of the role they played in the Factory Records saga.

Parting shot: Brilliant (yet difficult) record producer Martin Hannett, makes a brief appearance in Control, at the consoles while Curtis lays down the vocal track for “Isolation.”
Ben Naylor plays him here, while Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, played Hannett in 24 Hour Party People.
And whilst on the subject of 24 Hour Party People, it should be noted that Riley also appeared there, playing The Fall’s frontman, Mark E Smith.

Parting shot 2: Control’s end credits thank a number of familiar names, among them, Peter Saville (who designed classic Joy Division and New Order record sleeves, and who, sadly, does not appear in Control, as he did in 24 Hour Party People, as played by Enzo Cilenti), Depeche Mode’s Martin L.Gore, New Order, and Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant (for the Bunnygod image).
The credits also thank The National Society for Epilepsy (NSE), an organization “seeking a seizure free life for everyone.” For more information about epilepsy, go to

(Control UK quad courtesy of; Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division cover art courtesy of; record sleeve art [An Ideal For Living EP; “Atmosphere” UK 12”; and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” UK 12”] courtesy of

No comments: