A Fresh Look at Self-destruction

Ian Curtis was the lead singer in the post-punk band Joy Division. Control, a film entitled after one of the groups’ signature songs, is about Ian Curtis and his band—but mostly about the pressure of life.

Director Anton Corbijn went to great lengths to avoid making just another “music film.” According to the film’s promotional materials, when Corbijn was approached about the project, he turned it down because he didn’t want to desecrate the subject. Years ago, Corbijn had moved from his native Holland to Manchester, England in order to be near Joy Division, the band he loved. A photographer, he had made his own mark on the art world with his rock photos, and didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one genre of photography—much less stick with photography itself. He was searching for another medium, and actually wanted to make a film. But he thought his first film should be about something less important—something less dear to his own heart.

Anton Corbijn, director of ControlFate has a funny way of having its way, though. Producer Orian Williams realized that Corbijn was the right man for the job because of his close association with Ian Curtis and the band itself, because he had pursued the band and its lead singer with such singular interest, and also because he was already a renowned photographer who understood his subjects particularly well. So Corbijn signed up. He wanted to capture the everydayness of Ian Curtis. He wanted to capture what made him commit suicide at the age of 23, just as he and Joy Division were beginning a rise in international recognition.

Corbijn’s heart-felt interest in the project and his desire to make the film authentic—it was filmed in Nottingham, which looks much like Manchester did in the 70s—give Control an enduring character that will stand the test of time. It is a really well-crafted film, the rare piece in which one doesn’t have to know the subject individuals to appreciate the story.

Control is more than an introduction of a rock star gone awry. Filmed in black and white and with humble reality, it is a great example of how new ideas in filmmaking can bring abrupt change to the art of cinematic storytelling. Corbijn has captured a photograph’s intimate quality and transferred the effect to his film. I will even go so far as to say that it probably helps that Corbijn is a rookie director. He doesn’t have bad habits to unlearn.

The story is compelling and very soundly acted, especially so by Sam Riley as the Joy Division songwriter. Great care is given to produce honest and loving portrayals of all the characters in the story. Touching from a Distance, written by Ian’s surviving wife Deborah, is the main text which the filmmakers draw upon to establish the film’s tone. The book begins with Ian Curtis’ adolescent life in Macclesfield, and Deborah’s intimate experience with Ian gives great weight to this film.

Ian Curtis was a troubled person. He was also very creative and had a desire to be a rock star. But at 19, he had no idea he would become famous or successful. The very idea of his success caused him angst. He was losing control of his surroundings. He was prone to depression and a victim of epilepsy, which combined to cause him considerable pain. He married Deborah very young, and, in that impulsive vein, joined the group which later became Joy Division. Ian’s songwriting abilities helped to put the group on track to stardom. But even without Curtis, the band reformed itself as New Order and has gone on to stardom in its own right.

The film itself is somber but believable, and very engaging. The research and care that went into the filming and re-creation of Ian’s life are as important to the film as Ian himself, and I think you will find that this film is all the better for having been lovingly and carefully crafted.

Riley sums up the value of Control: “Anton always maintained that the crux of the story was of young love and family life. I might be wrong, but Anton wanted the band and the rise of the band Joy Division to be secondary to that in the story.”

Control is rated R for “language and brief sexuality.” The language is rough, but it is filmed in England so some of the swear words are “foreign” to American ears, and that might make the language issues less of a big deal. I guess by now you know I don’t quibble too much about authentic language. You aren’t going to bring your youngsters to this anyway.

Courtesy of local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of Control.