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Joy Division is heard anew, at a human scale

Personal touches enhance the feature 'Control' and a doc that takes its name from the band.

June 01, 2008|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

Most rock biopics are in the business of grandiosity and inflation, but "Control" -- Anton Corbijn's spare, laconic portrait of Ian Curtis, the late singer of Manchester post-punk heroes Joy Division -- does quite the opposite: It creates a life-size version of an iconic figure.

"Control," which the Weinstein Co. is releasing on DVD on Tuesday, keeps its focus on the man and the milestones in his short life: marriage to teenage sweetheart Deborah, a tedious job at the unemployment office, being diagnosed with epilepsy, fatherhood at a young age and, of course, the startlingly rapid ascent of Joy Division. The end of the story is intimately familiar to the band's devoted fans: Curtis hanged himself in May 1980, at age 23, just before Joy Division was to embark on its first U.S. tour.

Loosely based on "Touching From a Distance," a memoir by Deborah Curtis of her life with Ian, "Control" won't tell Joy Division fans anything they don't already know, but it's a dream match of director and subject. This is the Dutch-born, London-based Corbijn's first feature and a logical extension of his stills photography.

Working for the likes of U2, R.E.M. and Depeche Mode over the last few decades, Corbijn mastered an angsty, high-contrast aesthetic that his cinematographer, Martin Ruhe, replicates here in perfectly crisp black and white. (Corbijn also took perhaps the best-known photograph of Joy Division: the band members walking into a London Underground tunnel, Curtis turning back to look into the camera. It ran on the cover of the New Musical Express after Curtis' death.)

The movie takes pains not to offer explanations or assign blame for Curtis' suicide. But without presuming to psychoanalyze its subject, it gets into his head. Corbijn and his star, newcomer Sam Riley, convey the panic and nausea that Curtis apparently felt, whether on stage before a mob of fans or in his claustrophobic home environment -- his marriage to Deborah (Samantha Morton) began to unravel after he met and fell for a Belgian journalist named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara).

Riley captures Curtis' awkward intensity off stage and, even more impressive, the trancelike, self-annihilating quality of his performances. He also pulls off a decent copy of the singer's urgent baritone -- he and the other actors performed many of the songs, in live and studio settings, before crowds of actual Joy Division fans.

The other band members disappear into the secondary cast in "Control," but as it happens, much of what is left out of that film can be found in "Joy Division," an engrossing documentary on the band and its music, which debuted on the festival circuit last fall and is being released straight to DVD (also by the Weinstein Co.) on June 17.

Directed by Grant Gee (himself a music-video veteran) and written by author and critic Jon Savage, "Joy Division" is an exemplary music doc, a fine work both of history and of criticism. (Savage, writing for the weekly Melody Maker in the '70s, was one of Joy Division's early champions. His review of its first album begins by quoting the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem, and the line would prove eerily prophetic: "To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.")

There is a mournful quality to both "Control" and "Joy Division," which are elegies not only for Curtis but for an entire cast of characters that went before their time. Rob Gretton, who managed Joy Division and later New Order (the band that the remaining members went on to form), is dead, as is Martin Hannett, the producer who helped create their distinctive studio sound. Tony Wilson, a producer of "Control" and the founder of Factory Records, the label that became synonymous with the band, died a few months after the film's premiere last year.

But like "Control," "Joy Division" is not a sentimental movie. It is utterly unwilling to romanticize Curtis' death, which isn't dealt with until late in the documentary. In the end, both films pay the greatest tribute to Curtis by emphasizing the enduring vitality of his music and by separating the man from the myth.

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