Control

October 11, 2007

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Pete Doherty: piss off. Or watch this film. It’s really no surprise that interest in the turbulent and painfully short life of Ian Curtis, lead singer of revolutionary post-punk group Joy Division has eclipsed the sound and success of the band itself. At the age of 23, on the eve of the band’s first American tour, Curtis hanged himself in his own kitchen. Control is the devastatingly low-key account of this small but remarkably significant era of British music.

The opening scenes of the film track the later stages of Curtis’ school life, from amusing drug-gathering missions with his mate to the early dates and gigs with future wife Deborah. The problem with biopics- particularly those with grisly conclusions- is that we know what’s going to happen, (if you didn’t know, apologies for the spoiler but really, GET OUT MORE) so it’s pivotal that the build-up is a worthy portrait of the subject in question, an attempt to fill in the gaps and pump new blood into a potentially dormant piece of history. Control excels here both in front of and behind the lens, revealing a bright and tender, but gravely introspective Curtis that is coaxed from his shell by his first dose of love.Driven by a confidence in his talents and an ambition for greater things (he does live in Macclesfield, after all) he becomes front man of a local band. This is where it really kicks in. In Ray, Jamie Foxx miming to Ray Charles songs was a brave decision, and having Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon actually sing in Walk The Line was even bolder- both paid off. Control takes the latter option and attempts to recreate the unique guitar sound of Joy Division, the band even playing live a la School Of Rock (but the comparisons end there). The results are striking, the band replicating the simplicity and flair of their source with stunning accuracy. The package is made complete by Sam Riley’s outstanding Stars In Their Eyes-style performance as Curtis, commanding the dingy rock club stages with uncanny recreations of the lead singer’s mannerisms and note-perfect… well, notes. It’s not so much an impersonation as a re-birth.

Ah, yes. Sam Riley. The newcomer at the centre of this strangely affecting bit of cinema. Here is an actor that genuinely looks in with a chance of being the Next Big Thing. Without wanting to jinx his entire career, his performance in Control bears all the hallmarks of a seasoned screen talent. The effort and empathy he’s invested into the role is on full display at every turn, avoiding the ’troubled star’ pitfalls and offering us an understated, isolated human played with raw intensity but no hint of ego. It’s interesting that Riley’s original debut was cut from 24-Hour Party People, which features much of the same characters, themes and even incidents as Control– we should be thankful he has the chance to prove himself here. The breakthrough leading light is ably supported by the highly credible cast, but it’s unfortunate that this is all the writers allow them to do. Little light is shed on the people in Curtis’s life, but perhaps that’s the point. Many wanted to know him, protect him, love him, but as much as he needed it, Ian Curtis was so trapped in his own unravelling mind that he couldn’t let anyone else in.

The decision to shoot entirely in monochrome is a smart move, not only serving the story well aesthetically but also reinforcing the influence of Shane Meadows’ work (indeed, as well as starring locally-bred Television Workshop talent Samantha Morton and Toby Kebbell, several walls and streets of Nottingham provide locations in Control– obviously the city today is just Manchester minus 30 years of progress). Not comparable simply in the black and white paint pot of Meadows’ debut feature 24:7, director Anton Corbijn boasts a similar knack for earthy minimalism, a conscious endeavour not to over-complicate or make a fuss. Spoken words are few and far between- a single frame says everything that must be said, or (perhaps more frequently) what must be hidden. It’s sad then that they feel the need for random interludes of narration from Curtis, as his voice-overs are rarely insightful and bring little new to the table. Admittedly it’s a tough nut to crack, and it makes sense to try to explain his deteriorating condition (Curtis is diagnosed with epilepsy early on in the film) and the unstoppable depression consuming him, but voice-over seems a desperate device used lazily.

But though it’s frustrating to be left to wonder what’s going on in a head like that, that’s the real tragedy of this and almost every other high-profile suicide on which the movie industry has ever focussed: we do not understand. Gus Van Sant’s Last Days explores such a plight with a Kurt Cobain-esque character, and at times Control voices echoes of the tragic life of late 60’s singer/songwriter Nick Drake, who overdosed on tranquillisers aged 26. It’s a destructive paradox when the creative, expressive, soul-searching side of music collides with the shallow commercial industry and popular culture, and one that is all too familiar.

It’s also significant that Nick Drake is now something of a lost influence in music history, as that’s precisely the feeling Control provokes. If you’re discovering Joy Division for the first time, you’ll be forgiven for thinking it all happened last summer. If you’re already a fan, a post-film listen to the classic Unknown Pleasures album will breathe into it new life. It’s astonishing how much bands like The Smiths, The Cure, Radiohead, R.E.M, and even today The Killers, The Editors, Interpol etc. owe to the groundbreaking group that completed only two studio albums. As a ‘rise and fall’ account of a fascinating personality, it’s pretty much 10 minutes of rise and then horrific falling for the remainder, but much like Unknown Pleasures itself, Control is a delicately haunting melody that strikes all the right chords.

THE CRUNCH

4 / 5  nervous first-gig farts

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