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In honour of Ian Curtis: Control

May 18, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

It can’t have escaped the notice of anybody into good music that it’s 30 years since the death by suicide of Joy Division singer, Ian Curtis. One of the finest lyricists ever, whose tough/tender imagery hit a raw nerve that few before or since have matched.

Not counting documentaries, Curtis has been immortalised twice in the past decade by Sean Harris in 24 Hour Party People and more recently by Sam Riley in Control. Both are superb films and essential for anybody into a) good British music and b) good British films, although the latter is the more moving and astute look at Curtis’ life and career.

Here’s my review…

Control
(Anton Corbijn, GB, 2007)

The loneliness of the long distance rock star revealed, as the decade’s second great Joy Division biopic reclaims Ian Curtis from Factory legend

Pity the second film out of the blocks in the surprisingly frequent head-to-heads that have littered the cinematic landscape. Think of Valmont, or Infamous – no? Perhaps you never got past Dangerous Liaisons or Capote, the versions that stole all of the glory before their rivals even had a chance. Amazingly Control, the second film this decade to chart the (mis)fortunes of Joy Division and their doomed singer Ian Curtis, isn’t overshadowed by 24 Hour Party People in the same way. In fact, the two complement each other beautifully: between them, they form about as perfect a study of British pop-cultural life as you could wish for. Not only does the same story yield two contrasting characters – Tony Wilson’s flamboyant, irreverent dreamer versus Curtis’ tortured, intense poet – but two equally thrilling ways of filming it, with Michael Winterbottom’s cheeky, intuitive chaos here joined by a classical but emotionally raw reading of events.

Why Curtis? After all, cinema history is littered with the desecrated corpses of fascinating real-life people whose stories have become flat and dull when put on screen. Things work here because Control effectively fills in the blanks that Winterbottom’s film merrily skipped over as it attempted to print the legend as told by Wilson. Anton Corbijn was there (albeit as a peripheral figure) and knows that the truth is just as interesting. Far from the talismanic figure who inspired such outstanding music, Curtis was just an ordinary guy, living in a nondescript town, who was destroyed by his inability to reconcile his astonishing lyrical gifts with the more prosaic needs of getting on with life.

Accordingly, this is the rock movie as you’ve never seen it before, where the burgeoning ambition for immortality takes second place to work and marriage. Joy Division’s amateurish steps into the business are a world away from today’s X Factor culture, where even ‘indie’ is as slickly packaged as commercial pop. The gigs are sweaty affairs in tatty venues, bristling with unspoken violence, and the morning after Curtis is back in his dead-end job. Aptly, the film has the look and feel of a kitchen sink movie from the 60s, most pertinently, Billy Liar, similarly a dreamer trapped between two worlds and two women.

By giving equal weight to Joy Division and his ’real’ life, Corbijn paints a far more interesting picture than most biopics even think of. This is a film about the impossible gap between creativity and normality, and may be the best word on the subject since The Shining. While based on Deborah Curtis’ memoir, the film isn’t defined by it, thus avoiding the Mommie Dearest trap of character assassination that tell-all memoirs are prone to fall into. Instead, Corbijn astutely feeds Deborah’s perspective into Ian’s own character, to create a portrait of a man who suspects he is a poor husband and father but still can’t step up when it counts.

It’s no surprise given Corbijn’s track record as a photographer and maker of music promos that Control looks and sounds so evocative. Joy Division’s gigs have a raw intensity that’s propelled by the brave decision to let the actors perform themselves: it could have been disastrous, but these guys are like ventriloquists. And the pinpoint perfection of the camerawork adds a touch of expressionistic, painterly texture to events, most notably in the telltale light that consistently falls on Curtis’ wedding ring to highlight his guilt.

What’s more pleasing is that Corbijn steps up to the broader canvas of film with an assurance that few debutants can muster. The editing confidently and breezily alternates between band and marriage, the pace gradually slowing until it captures Curtis’ final days and hours with an agonising, almost real-time focus. And the performances are uncanny. Most of the actors, of course, are essaying roles that bigger names were playing only five years ago, but they hold their own against some household names: Toby Kebbell even eclipses his Dead Man’s Shoes co-star Paddy Considine in the battle of the Rob Grettons (the band’s endearing, Jack-the-lad manager). But it’s Sam Riley show through and through. At first he looks too young and carefree for the role, but that’s the point. It’s only when he first takes the stage that he transforms into the emotional and physical maelstrom of legend, and his internal struggle becomes etched increasingly into his brow as the film goes on. It’s such a brilliant act that the part of Deborah Curtis seems thankless in comparison, yet it’s to Samantha Morton’s credit that she understands she’s the anchor of the whole piece. Her typically intuitive performance keeps a potentially morose, nagging demeanour at bay to make Deborah both understandable and sympathetic.

Original review November 2007 @ Simon Kinnear

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