May 3, 2008
The low-key, downbeat account of the pioneering post-punk group Joy Division, Control dramatised lead singer Ian Curtis’ descent into oblivion with touching brutality. Here Grant Gee fills in some of the gaps in documentary form, feeding off frank interviews with the rest of the band and a treasure trove of rare archive footage.
Gee is blessed with one of the most engaging stories and most fascinating characters in music history, so it really isn’t that hard to produce something worth watching. The surviving bandmates (who became New Order post-Curtis) Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris understandably make the most interesting subjects, offering honest and often very funny anecdotes of the band’s antics without sentimentalising memories of their troubled frontman.
Like Control, the film leaves you itching to race home and listen to the mini-legacy that the band left behind, the groundbreaking albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Even someone coming to the film without hearing a note of any of their songs can’t fail to be stirred by the haunting electro sound that heralded a new era of music. The ponderous, slow-burning pace with which Gee unfolds the story captures this sound brilliantly, and despite the blinding performance of Sam Riley in Control, the documentary seems to unearth the true spirit of Ian Curtis with greater authenticity… and he’s not even around for an interview.
Neither is his wife Deborah, and the reasons for this glaring omission are never explained. We do get a touching insight into Curtis’ private psyche through his mistress Annik Honore, and Factory Records giant Tony Wilson is always entertaining. Breaking up the stream of revealing testemonials is a bank of shoddy archive footage of various live performances, which Gee simply lets us watch. How grateful he must feel that Joy Division need little introduction and certainly no enhancing with tricksy filmmaking gimmicks… it just works.
Bizarrely, plenty of screen time is given to the designer of the band’s album covers, but it’s soon clear that the images linked to the band are a huge part of their place in pop culture. We also visit the many haunts and dives of Manchester’s punk and new wave scene, and those retro landmarks that have since passed on are accompanied by the sad but telling tag: ‘Things That Aren’t There’.
But if the historical context (of which, regrettably, we see little outside of the band in question) is a distant memory, one major point this movie makes is how the music of Joy Division refuses to date. I forget who, but someone at some point in the film marvels at how their music, over two decades on still sounds “so bloody contemporary”. It seems that, like Curtis himself, the sound refelcts a mood rather than a time, a philosophy rather than a reaction to society. Whatever it is, ‘the last true story in pop’ slides under a sensitive and satisfying microscope here, and makes a nifty comapnion piece if you enjoyed Control.