June 2, 2008
Ever since Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British band Joy Division, died in 1980, he has achieved the iconic status of an emerging artist showing signs of brilliance before meeting an early, tragic end. In Curtis’ case, he committed suicide on the eve of his band’s first American tour. His brief life has already been depicted on film in Michael Winterbottom’s fast ‘n’ loose look at the Manchester music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, 24 Hour Party People (2002), but it was only for the first half of that film. Control (2007) draws most of its content from Touching from a Distance, the memoirs of Ian’s wife, Deborah, and is directed by music video maker Anton Corbijn. He not only directed the video for their song, “Atmosphere,” but also shot some of the most memorable photographs of the band, making him the ideal choice to helm this film.
Control begins with Ian Curtis (Riley) as a high school student listening to loads of David Bowie and doing what so many of us do: imagining himself as a rock star. Corbijn not only makes a point of showing the profound influence Bowie had on Ian but also includes nice little touches, like how he had his writings organized in three binders: novels, poems, and lyrics. Ian meets Deborah (Morton) through a mutual friend and they end up falling in love and getting married at a young age.
One of the things that makes Control work so well is the choices that Corbijn makes. When Ian and Deborah go see David Bowie and then the Sex Pistols in concert, he doesn’t try to have actors portray these famous musicians because it would be a distraction and possibly take us out of the film. Instead, he maintains his focus on Ian and Deborah as it is their story after all.
We see the band in their infancy when they were called Warsaw – a rough draft of what would become Joy Division. The film really captures their undeniable energy and it is a credit to the actors that they are able to depict that realistically. This is done by them actually playing their instruments instead of simply miming along to tracks off the album. The actors who play the members of Joy Division all look very close to their real-life counterparts but not to the point of distraction.
Sam Riley, especially, eerily inhabits Ian Curtis, getting all of his mannerisms on stage down cold but, more importantly, he inhabits the man offstage which is even tougher to do. Riley is a revelation as he really becomes Ian and shows the complexities of the man – the struggle with epilepsy and his relationship with Deborah and his mistress Annik Honore (Maria Lara). His expressive face conveys Ian’s inner turmoil so effectively and the actor wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation but really becomes Ian.
The always excellent Samantha Morton is heartbreakingly good as Ian’s wife. She conveys the strength of Deborah and the tragedy of her gradually disintegrating relationship with Ian. You can see the pain and frustration on her face. It’s a wonderfully understated performance. Her finest moment is in the scene where Deborah confronts Ian about his affair with Annik. She pleads angrily with him to admit to what he’s done but he says nothing and she leaves in frustration. It’s a devastating scene that is uncomfortable to watch at times.
This is a very low-key biopic. Even when it hits the important moments – i.e. Ian meeting his future bandmates at a Sex Pistols gig, their first appearance on Tony Wilson’s TV show, and so on – the drama of them is downplayed so that they are presented rather matter-of-factly which is wonderfully refreshing to see. It also sets Control apart from Hollywood biopics of musicians like Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). Those films tended to telegraph the significant events in their subject’s lives but in Control, Corbijn adopts the same kind of tone as Joy Division’s music – very monochromatic but with a lot of emotion as well. It’s a black and white film about a very colourful personality.
Control shows the problems Ian faced – step-by-step – that led to him committing suicide. He started out as a fairly happy guy but the problems he had started to seep into his life – epilepsy, his mistress, and the side effects of the medicine he took for his condition. The film explores how all of these factors affected his mental state and influenced his songwriting. Corbijn punctuates the significant moments in Ian’s life with Joy Division songs – for example, as his relationship with Deborah disintegrates, “Love Will Never Tear Us Apart” plays on the soundtrack. This isn’t done just to comment on what is happening; it is also the moment in time when this particular song was born.
Filmed in richly textured black and white, Control is an excellent look at Ian Curtis’ life that tears down the iconic image and delves deeper. Corbijn’s film refuses to romanticize the man and this sets it apart from most other musician biopics. It is understated yet emotionally affecting and a fitting tribute to his legacy and that of Joy Division.
There is an audio commentary by director Anton Corbijn. With his thick accent, he’s a little hard to follow at times but manages to cover the usual topics: casting choices, shooting on location, and so on. He praises the performances of Sam Riley and Samantha Morton while also pointing out technical details, like how the concert scenes where shot with hand-held cameras and everything else was done with steadicams. This track is a little on the dull side but Corbijn does impart interesting factoids and it was clearly a labour of love for him.
“The Making of Control” takes a look at how the film came together. Corbijn moved to England because of Joy Division and took iconic photos of the band. So, he had an emotional connection to the material. His black and white photos influenced his decision to shoot the film in a similar style. The actors who played the members of Joy Division talk about the challenge of playing people who are still alive, learning to play musical instruments, and the songs. Impressively, they shot in Ian and Deborah’s home at the time when the film takes place, which certainly gives an added authenticity to the film. This is an excellent featurette filled with loads of interesting information.
“In Control: A Conversation with Anton Corbijn” tends to repeat some of the information from the commentary track and the making of featurette. The director talks about how he discovered Joy Division’s music and how he eventually met them. He touches upon how they shot in Ian’s hometown for authenticity. Corbijn also talks about casting Ian and how the actors impressed him by being able to play Joy Division’s songs well enough to play live during filming.
“Extended Live Concert Performances from the Film” allows you to see “Transmission”, “Leaders of Men”, and “Candidate” in their entirety.
In a nice touch, there are the videos for “Transmission,” a powerful rendition done for live TV with a riveting performance by Ian, Corbijn’s video for “Atmosphere” that is haunting as it was done after Ian’s death, and The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay” which is surprisingly effective.
Also included is a “Still Gallery” with photographs from the film.
Finally, there are “Promotional Materials,” trailers for the film, a blurb for Deborah’s book about Ian, the soundtrack, and so on.