Biopics have a patchy track record at best, and rock star biopics are a killing field strewn with the dismembered bodies of dreams that could never live up to the light of narrative storytelling. Joy Division is an exception in that it has been central to two towering achievements of rock music cinema, the first as a supporting part in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 24 Hour Party People and more recently as the subject of Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), which has just hit the screens in Taipei.
It’s a remarkable work of psychological and social exploration, subtle, understated and affecting, even for those for whom the post-punk Manchester music scene is a matter of complete indifference. It’s as much about a man, Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division whose suicide at age 23 was a shattering experience for fans of a band that was just about to be launched into the stratospheric heights of international rock stardom. Curtis is played with enormous conviction by Sam Riley, who also performs the vocals from the Joy Division repertoire, a move which gives the performance sequences an immediacy and conviction, ironically absent from such productions as La Vie en Rose (2007), in which the lovely Marion Cotillard lip-synced to original Edith Piaf vocals.
Shot in gritty black and white, the world of the Manchester music revolution as seen by Ian Curtis is a very different place from the more colorful if equally manic and dysfunctional one revealed by music impresario Tony Wilson, from whose perspective 24 Hour Party People is shot. The two films would make a wonderful double bill, both portraying the rough and tumble of the music industry with a clear eye for the magical way in which it can sometimes give expression to inarticulable angst and frustration, and the way this is cynically manipulated. Control, whose director Anton Corbijin was instrumental in creating the image of Curtis and Joy Division as a photographer and was personally acquainted with the subject, has an intimacy that is very much in contrast to American mainstream features such as the Ray Charles biopic Ray (2004) or the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005).
DIRECTED BY: Anton Corbijn
STARRING: Samantha Morton (Deborah Curtis), Sam Riley (Ian Curtis), Alexandra Maria Lara (Annik Honore), Joe Anderson (Peter Hook), Toby Kebbell
RUNNING TIME: 122 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
Control is far too deeply rooted in the familiar agonies of early adolescence and young manhood and the deep malaise of a big industrial city to allow any expectations of a fairy-tale ending or even redemption, and Curtis’ character is drawn to exactly human proportions. Neither his talent nor the obstacles in his path are ever portrayed as anything extraordinary — despite his voice, his magnetic stage presence, his job at the local job center, his epilepsy, his one tragic romance, he is an ordinary bloke trying to do the right thing.
And in any case, it’s taken for granted that everyone knows the tragic ending, so the director can focus on the performances. Samantha Morton, who plays Ian Curtis’ teenage wife, puts in a massive performance and anchors the film in the practicalities of lower-middle class English life. The ensemble playing band members such as Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), manager Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) and Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) creates a world that is both cutting edge and down at heel. There are moments of great humor, largely realized in Kebbell’s character, and the relationship between Annik Honore and Curtis is full of innocence and discovery.