Last year in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the increasingly popular genre of musical biopics was skewered for comedy by John C. Reilly, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan. And indeed, in this era of excellent, yet structurally similar works such as Ray and Walk the Line, or just downright experimental musical film portraiture (I’m Not There) that consistently draws both acclaim and Oscar nominations, venturing to make a rock ‘n roll biography has become both predictably dull business and cinematically ambitious all at the same time—or at least that’s the case when it’s done right. And Dutch rock photographer turned filmmaker Anton Corbijn manages to blend both the traditional narrative approach and cinematic artistry of the two aforementioned subgenre types into something uniquely his own, shattering old expectations and releasing and unforgettably searing, intimate, heartbreaking and wholly original work with Control.
Imagine this paradox: a quiet film about rock ‘n roll. Yet, when you consider the subject matter—the tragic tale of soft-spoken, melancholic Joy Division front-man Ian Curtis who took his own life at the tender age of 23, there is no other way to approach the material. Similar to the sound engineering, the decision to film in black and white isn’t artistically pretentious but natural as Corbijn-- who had himself shot some of the most iconic photos of not only the band and Curtis in the late 1970’s and just before the singer’s death on May 18,1980-- realized, as he shared on the DVD featurette, that for a band which released their albums with simple black and white sleeves and had became known to fans via this crisp dual tone photography, releasing the film in color wasn’t even an option. Intriguingly, when principal shooting began, Corbijn realized that using black and white film stock made his work seem far too grainy so he opted to use colored film, which he was able to flip to breathtakingly vivid black and white effect in the development. In the end, the result is a biopic that feels like a vivid document of the given time and place, as Corbijn and his crew filmed in Curtis’s hometown of Macclesfield, England while utilizing as the director noted on the DVD, not only Curtis’s own home but the streets he’d actually walked in his painstakingly accurate portraiture that follows seven years of the troubled musician’s life from age 14-23.
Formerly in cinema, the life of Ian Curtis and the history of the band Joy Division was used as an effective yet underdeveloped, fascinating footnote in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant film 24 Hour Party People, an exceptional biopic of Granada television personality turned record producer and club owner, Tony Wilson, who helped champion bands of the underground and usher Manchester, England from the era of punk music to new wave. Some of the events of People are echoed here such as Wilson’s devotion to Joy Division, which he believed in so strongly that he actually signed the band to his label Factory Records using his own blood. Interestingly, whereas a majority of Winterbottom’s film was brash, in-your-face and as loudly chaotic as a night in one of Wilson’s clubs, the tone always quieted down when dealing with the character of Ian Curtis, especially before his untimely death and in doing so, American viewers, along with others not as well versed in British punk rock history, and/or those born after the events depicted found themselves longing for more back-story regarding the events.
Thankfully, instead of just using the material as fodder for a salacious tabloid style take from a filmmaker without any personal investment in the subject, photographer turned filmmaker Anton Corbijn made the ideal choice to helm an adaptation of Curtis’s life, having himself been so inspired by listening to the man’s music in Holland in 1979 that he impulsively packed a bag and decided to journey to England to be closer to where the music was made, according to the DVD. Expanding on this, he shared in the disc’s interview that he was close enough to the band for him to know the material and handle it in the right way but not so close that he would’ve been too emotional to be subjective or unable to turn it into a compelling film.
Equally beneficial to the film’s success was the phenomenally fortuitous casting of a relative unknown for the lead role, namely former child actor turned singer, Sam Riley who not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Curtis but given his musical ability, sung all of Joy Division’s songs and—because of his considerable anonymity—gives the film a near documentary feel.
From his earliest days killing time in his room listening to and idolizing glam rocker David Bowie, visiting elderly neighbors in order to raid their medicine cabinets with his best friend, scribbling down poetry and citing Wordsworth from memory, we’re introduced to a gentle, yet troubled Ian Curtis who always seems to feel easiest when alone or in small groups. After he falls in love with and spontaneously marries Debbie (Samantha Morton), his best friend’s girl to whom he states “You’re mine. Irretrievably. And you know it,” Curtis accepts an admirable if admittedly depressing governmental position securing employment for the mentally and physically impaired residents in his community.
Although, at the same legendary, early Sex Pistols concert that Tony Wilson referenced in 24 Hour Party People, the life of Ian Curtis was equally altered when-- high off the anarchic sounds of the punk bands-- he joined up with some mates. Using a rebellious and ironic allusion to the name of the brothel the German soldiers patronized in World War II—Curtis and company formed their own version of Joy Division where he accepted the role of lead singer, forever changing the face of British music.
After a rocky start, signing with Wilson propelled the band and the shy Curtis to stardom much to the chagrin of his humble wife Debbie who realizes that being a musician’s wife—especially when one is still so young—is much more than she bargained for, especially after the birth of their daughter Natalie finds her becoming a near single parent. This is especially taxing when, after his first major gig in London, the formerly healthy Curtis has an epileptic fit on the way home and-- considering the lack of information surrounding the condition in that particular time-- is given nearly half a dozen prescriptions with the medical claim that the doctors are unsure which ones will work and which won’t, as he must now accept life as an epileptic with a treatment best described as “trial and error.”
Perhaps fitting to the hateful adage that good things always happen with bad, while Joy Division becomes an astronomical success with Wilson booking more and more dates on the road, Curtis begins to unravel as the withdrawn, melancholic and solitary youth we first met becomes far moodier and introspective, possibly given the combination of both his new diagnosis or the laundry list of side effects that such powerful drugs can have on a man as they all begin to wreak havoc on his outlook on life.
Contradictions continue as things get unexpectedly sunnier yet infinitely more complicated for Curtis when he meets the beguiling, French Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian embassy employee who becomes taken with the singer at a performance and goes backstage to request an interview with the band as an aspiring journalist. Predictably, the two fall deeply in love. Soon Curtis finds himself leading a double life as a husband and father at home to a wife and daughter he barely knows or with whom he seems to relate anymore and feeling a strong pull towards the woman he feels is his soul mate on the road, as Annik becomes his devoted lover away from home, taking care of him against his wishes when he collapses onstage and becoming his favorite person to just sit with silently when he feels blue (which for Curtis is most of the time). Inevitably, Debbie discovers the betrayal and Curtis grows increasingly cruel and moody, pushing those closest to him away as—in a revealing conversation with Wilson—he begins to mistake love for hate, unsure what he wants in life, and beginning to tire from the breakneck schedule and constant push to perform.
Although viewers know exactly where his life is headed, Corbijn thankfully handles the final days of Curtis’s life with taste, never reveling in the horror of it, and instead just painting a fascinating, frustrating, beautiful, and completely objective portrait of the singer as a young man, never leaping to any conclusions, offering a comforting “bookend” or providing pat solutions as is the custom with many traditional music biopics. Instead, Corbijn and his tremendous lead actor Riley prefer to just let his legacy live on, most likely much like Curtis would’ve wanted with those addictively haunting songs.
Yet, in trying to go beyond the music, after viewing Control, the words and Curtis’s unique delivery of the lyrics of such classics as “She’s Lost Control,” “Isolation” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” become far more revealing, making the ironic, sadly deceased lone-wolf Curtis suddenly feel closer to us than ever and more alive all thanks to the filmmakers-- and by turn the audience's decision of having taken the time to walk a mile of his Macclesfield road.