This weekend I found time to watch Control which tells the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23.
The story is told in sombre monochrome and is the directorial debut of the Dutch photographer and graphic artist Anton Corbijn. Corbijn has explained in several interviews why he chose to use black and white. He argues that the collective memory of Joy Division really is in black and white. “All of the photographers who shot Joy Division at the time made black and white photographs and the band themselves expressed their music in black and white sleeves. My own impression of England at that time, in the late ‘70s, was a very grey country. For all these reasons, I thought it was accurate to make it like this.”
My own personal memories of the late ’70s is more brown and orange captured on Kodachrome, but many people still had black and white televisions and it does add some kitchen sink realism to the real life drama being told.
Joy Division largely past me by when I was a lad and I only discovered them following the success of New Order who rose phoenix like from the ashes of this tragedy.
The film is a fairly minimalist account of Curtis’ life (played by Sam Riley). He was an intelligent, dreamy working-class lad growing up in Macclesfield. He shows a talent as a poet and his ambitions and hopes became focused on a pursuit of art and literature, eventually culminating in music. Curtis had many influences such as the writers Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Conrad and by the musicians David Bowie and Iggy Pop, these are shown by passing shots of his book shelves and posters in his bedroom.
Only 19, he falls in love and marries a local girl, Deborah (played by the wonderful Samantha Morton) he earns his living as a clerk at an employment exchange. Despite it being a potentially mundane job he is shown to be a caring thoughtful individual in a number of scenes, one involving a mentally disadvantaged, but charming boy and one powerful encounter with a female job-seeker who has an epileptic fit in his office (going on to inspire his song ‘She’s Lost Control’)
Curtis goes on to join the band that would become Joy Division after meeting his three fellow group members at a gig in Manchester. There is very little sense of fun or elation in the band’s success, first playing locally and then touring after being signed by Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label it is depicted as a dreary existence lived in a haze of booze and drugs.
Curtis discovers he also suffers from epilepsy a condition that steadily gets worse and unfortunately at the time was treated with a trial and error cocktail of debilitating drugs which compound his growing detachment and depression.
Following the birth of their baby Natalie the marriage begins to break-up, Curtis’ depression increases and the combination of the marital problems, an affair with a beautiful Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, his epilepsy and an increasing fear of public performance lead almost inevitably to his suicide.
Curtis kills himself shortly after recovering from a seizure after downing a bottle of scotch while watching Werner Herzog’s depressing movie Stroszek on television and listening to Iggy Pop’s, The Idiot.
While the story may be depressing, the film is a visual and audible feast, the monochrome cinematography is some of the best I have seen and the clever use of music and Joy Division’s own songs add depth and understanding to the story, for instance the segment using “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (the lyrics are perceived to reflect the problems in Curtis’ marriage) is sublime.
The film has been criticised by some for being a bit thin and lacking in explanation of Curtis’ mental state but personally I feel it is better for not trying to second guess his state of mind. If anyone should know what drove Ian Curtis to suicide it would be his wife Deborah and the film is based on her own book Touching from a distance and she is one of the producers of the film.
I recommend anyone to watch it.