June 11, 2008
While Control (2007) was the dramatized account of the rise and fall of British rock band Joy Division and its troubled lead singer Ian Curtis, Joy Division (2007) is a feature-length documentary chronicling the band’s all-too brief lifespan. Their story is pretty well known by now: inspired by the Sex Pistols (among several other bands), Joy Division fused dark, brooding lyrics with cold yet catchy music that would, in turn, influence bands like Interpol. So, any documentary on the band is going to have to have never-before-seen footage and/or exclusive interviews with surviving band members, friends, family and collaborators to stand out from other films on them.
The documentary starts off examining how the industrial city of Manchester, England, with its bleak lack of prospects, inspired Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner, to come together and start a band called Warsaw. The surviving band members take us through the band’s humble beginnings including the disastrous recording of their first single with Sumner telling an amusing story of its debut at a local club.
The band members talk about the recording of Unknown Pleasures, their first studio album, and the mad genius of record producer Martin Hannett, while graphic designer Peter Saville talks about the source of the album’s haunting cover art. One interviewee sums up the band’s sound perfectly as a science fiction interpretation of Manchester, giving the city an almost cosmic vibe.
The emergence of Ian’s epilepsy is discussed and Sumner talks about how it affected the rest of the band and how it changed the lead singer’s moods. Sadly, they were all so young and inexperienced that they didn’t realize how serious Ian’s condition was and allowed him to push himself harder then he should have considering the severity of the epilepsy and the side effects of the medication he took.
As the documentary moves onto the recording of Closer, the band’s second studio album, Ian’s illness got worse as did his personal life, juggling married life with a child and mistress. Interestingly, the “other woman,” Annik Honore, is interviewed while Ian’s wife, Deborah is not. However, this may be due to the fact that Anton Corbijn’s film about Ian and the band, Control, is really her side of the story. Ian’s bandmates talk about how they reacted to the news of his suicide and the subsequent aftermath – how they soldiered on and formed New Order, becoming one of the biggest bands in the 1980s.
There is fantastic footage of Joy Division’s first appearance on Tony Wilson’s television show, rare photographs of the band and cool stuff like pages from the notebook of the band’s manager, Rob Gretton that will certainly appeal to hardcore fans of the band. There is some great bootleg footage of the band playing live where their music took on a much more aggressive stance. This doc is also chock full of entertaining anecdotes, like a hilarious story Peter Hook tells about Ian meeting William S. Burroughs at a book signing.
Joy Division is a fascinating documentary about the band as told by the people who there and enhanced by footage and photos from that time. It is quite detailed and yet at 98 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. The documentary hits the high and low points as it expertly maintains just the right balance. It serves as an excellent companion piece to both Control, which is a fictionalized account of the band from Ian’s wife’s point-of-view, and 24 Hour Party People (2002), which is a view of the band from Tony Wilson’s perspective. Joy Division is a fresh take from these other two films in the sense that it is the story of the band told from the surviving members’ point-of-view. This documentary is certainly accessible to the casual fan as well as the devotee.
There is footage of Joy Division performing “Transmission” on a BBC TV show.
Also included is an impressive 75 minutes of additional interview footage. Some highlights include Tony Wilson telling a funny anecdote about Emmy Lou Harris playing one of his requests at her concert and the reaction she got from the Manchester audience. The Nazi iconography that Joy Division flirted with early on is also discussed. Sumner talks about how Ian turned him on to Kraftwerk and this inspired him to build his own synthesizer.