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Joy Division's resurgence is multiplying

New films, rereleased recordings and many more band-inspired tributes (sushi, anyone?) are spreading the Joy like never before.

October 07, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

More than three decades have passed since Joy Division emerged from the cultural rubble of post-industrial Manchester, England to rechannel punk rock's sound and fury into something more sublime.

Over the group's fleeting, three-year existence, its lyrics connected with fans by conveying emotional isolation and existential despair while the music arrived with the visceral impact of shattering glass. Just 50 Joy Division songs were recorded in all: darkly propulsive rock anthems and atmospheric soundscapes that demonstrate a kind of glacial grandeur, both serene and severe.

Now, 27 years after the group's charismatic lead singer and songwriter, Ian Curtis, hanged himself at age 23, the band is having a "moment." Which is to say, after years as a cult phenomenon, Joy Division's influence is suddenly turning up all over pop culture.

But why Joy Division? Why now?

In an era that has post-punk cultural touchstones such as skinny ties, danceable rock and distrust of the government making a comeback, many of those participating in the band's revival seem more apt to frame debate around what Joy Division isn't than to provide a new raison d'ĂȘtre for its current resurgence.

"When people revisit it, there's no cultural kitsch. It's so pared down, it's not retro," said Grant Gee, director of the new documentary "Joy Division." "Everything about the band has a minimalism that doesn't age."

Added Anton Corbijn, director of the elegantly shot Curtis biopic "Control": "Joy Division doesn't feel fashionable in any way. It defined an era but it doesn't really come from that era."

On Oct. 19, "Control" will begin its Los Angeles theatrical run. Co-produced and directed by the music-video ace and art photographer, it traces Curtis' internal conflicts as a married family man who struggled to reconcile his fragmented existence as a rock star and closet intellectual prone to devastating epileptic seizures.

"Control" cleaned up at last year's Cannes Film Festival, winning the Regards Jeunes prize for best first or second directed feature and the Europa Cinema award for best European film being shown out of competition for the Palme d'Or.

Last month, music-video helmer Gee's rockumentary -- which details the group's fast rise and sudden end from the perspective of band members and those close to them -- was acquired by the Weinstein Co. at the Toronto Film Festival. Although a release date hasn't been set, "Joy Division" has caused a stir among band faithful for including a first-ever interview with Annik Honoré, Curtis' mistress during his final days.

Moreover, it's become almost impossible to turn on modern-rock radio without registering the sonic debt owed Joy Division by a who's who of buzz bands -- most notably, the Killers, She Wants Revenge, Interpol, Bloc Party, the National and Moving Units.

"It's not like the hipsters have united and decided, 'This is the best band,' " said Brian Aubert, singer-guitarist of Silver Lake indie-rock group the Silversun Pickups, which covered Joy Division's "Shadowplay" on an early demo tape. "It's always been the best band. A band you found out about through other people. It was never pushed on you."

Until now, that is. Cashing in on the interest, Rhino Records is releasing deluxe editions of Joy Division's studio albums, "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer," and "Still," a compilation of rare recordings; Joy Division ringtones, a special vinyl box set and the soundtrack to "Control," which contains unreleased music by the Killers and New Order, the band composed of Joy Division's three remaining members.

Tom Atencio has managed New Order in North America for more than 20 years in addition to administering Joy Division's catalog on this continent and executive producing "Joy Division." He places the band's purity of purpose against the disposable nature of most pop music today.

"We live in a time of 'American Idol' where, if you're a kid, you are being force fed pop music that is a direct descendant of a hit from six months ago," Atencio said. "Yet here's a band you could trust. They weren't seeking the idolatry of a rock stage. This music was something they needed to express.

"Then there's something so moving in the sound of the music that people just want to identify with. Something in Ian's deeply felt lyrics and delivery that's unbelievably honest. It's that dog whistle of instant recognition -- in an era of branding, here's a brand you can trust."

A pop-music cipher

Chris Ott, who wrote the book "Unknown Pleasures" about the making of Joy Division's epochal 1979 debut album, places Curtis' reclaimed relevance in a different context: alongside fellow rock casualties Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious. "Because Ian Curtis killed himself, people can project whatever they want onto his life and music," Ott said. "He's not around to tell them otherwise."

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