Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published September 14th 2019
What joy was there in Joy Division
As I mentioned in my review of 24 Hour Party People, I recently purchased a cheap double DVD pack. Having watched the first one, I decided to bite the bullet and watch the second. I now understand why they were packaged together, but you could not find a more different film…
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Produced by Anton Corbijn, Todd Eckert, Orian Williams, Iain Canning, Peter Heslop, Tony Wilson, Deborah Curtis Screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh Based on the book Touching From A Distance by Deborah Curtis Starring Samantha Morton and Sam Riley
This film follows a similar narrative to the first half of 24 Hour Party People – this is the story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the band Joy Division. This is a musical biopic of the man, focused completely on him and his life, from the end of his schooling, to his young marriage, through to his death (I'd say spoiler alert, but I believe it's common knowledge that Curtis committed suicide in 1980). But whereas 24 Hour… was a comedy and an exaggeration, this is rather bleak and not a little depressing.
Curtis is portrayed in an affectionate way, as a flawed hero. But his indiscretions are not glossed over, including the affair he was having at the end of his life. It does feel like a warts-and-all story. Of course, I know it is not going to be completely accurate, but it certainly feels authentic while watching it. Anton Corbijn, the director, was also a photographer for much of Joy Division's existence, and many of the photographs of the band come courtesy of him, so he also has quite the inside into the band and what made them tick. That affection for the subject definitely shows through.
Now, while music is the focus of the story, it also shows Curtis' job as a disability support worker – including seeing a woman have an epileptic fit (foreshadowing), who will go on to die from a seizure and inspire one of Curtis' songs – and his life with Debbie, his wife, and later Natalie, their daughter. When looking at this and 24 Hour…, some of the same incidents are featured in both stories, although the language in 24 Hour… was probably more authentic (especially after watching the Joy Division documentary) at times. Weird.
Anyway, the story shows how the band Warsaw started, how they became Joy Division, how they went through everything they did from their first television appearance, their records, their slow rise, Curtis discovering he has epilepsy, and then, on the eve of an American tour, his suicide.
He was only twenty-three when he died, but the small body of work he produced in that time showed a man of great talent. His lyrics were intelligent and well-thought out. He had the ability to put into words what so many were feeling, in a manner that resonated with the listeners. It was not music you could sing along to on the whole, but it was music that made you think. And if you thought about it too long, you felt a little down yourself.
The acting in the film is really good. The performances were believable and the way it was presented in black and white (apparently it was shot in colour, but then turned to black and white in post-production) gave the whole thing a gritty feel. Special mention has to made of Sam Riley, whose portrayal of Curtis is amazing. He gives the character a reality, a confusion, then a desperation as the film goes on, that makes Curtis such a harrowing figure in this film. Curtis comes across as a real person, not some glorified hero of the scene.
However, Curtis is also portrayed as not a great husband to Debbie. This is not hero-worship, this is truth, and the truth can be ugly.
But, really, what makes this film is the way the music is used. Not just from Joy Division, but their contemporaries as well. The music sets the scene and mood and era in a simple, effective manner. We even watch Curtis develop songs as they go through, and the stage performances from Riley so perfectly mimic the Curtis we've seen in archival footage. Visually, those parts of it are stunning.
The fact that it is based so completely on reality means there is no great ending. Curtis does not end up rich and famous while he is alive. He never gets that "house in Cheshire", but is stuck in the lower end of the living scale. He and Debbie don't have a happily ever after; she refuses to back out of the divorce before his suicide. Annike, the Belgian reporter who Curtis has his main affair with at the end of his life, and Curtis don't get their happily ever after, either. She is just there; there's even the hint that he didn't really love her. And the scene where Debbie finds out about her, going through Curtis' belongings, while 'Love Will Tear Is Apart' plays, is heart-breaking.
This is not a feel-good film by any stretch of the imagination. But it is as honest as a musical biopic can get. There had undoubtedly been changes to the reality of the narrative, and there have been exaggerations and maybe even some fables put forth as truth, but, still, it is raw. And it is heart-breaking.
After it was over, I just stared at the screen for a while, trying to comprehend all that I'd seen. He wanted so much and he had the talent to get there, but he did not feel he could, that he was worth it, and so he ended his own life.
This is hardly a feel-good movie.
But watching the two films together, as I now have, it gives two very different views of the music scene that was Manchester in the 1980s. Great music, unpleasant people, the depressing reality of their lives, and, in the end, no-one wins. Not really.
Still, Control is a magnificent movie, and well worth watching.
And, to finish, here is Joy Division with the song that made them around the world, even if only for a heart-beat: 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. What a great song. The perfect way to remember Ian Curtis.