Ian Curtis was the mysteriously depressing frontman for the new wave punk proto-goth band, Joy Division. Curtis’ band, in 1977, helped launched Factory Records, gloom rock, and the Manchester rock scene (later dominated by their polar opposites in sound and attitude, The Happy Mondays). Curtis continues to be an enigma to fans because of his darkly personal lyrics, his freaky dancing that occasionally gave way to epileptic fits, and his 1980 suicide at age 23.
Control is a black and white cinematic representation of Curtis’ backstage life, which is, in essence, a dull story that could hardly interest anyone were it not for the fact that Joy Division was great. Curtis was and is revered for his onstage presence and his songwriting talent and like many talented artists and performers, he was not a particularly interesting person beyond that. Not that that’s not enough, Joy Division was a great band and probably one of the most enigmatic manifestations of punk culture. Certainly Curtis and co, as musicians helped to extend the possibilities for what punk can be but to look at the singer beyond Joy Division is to tell a story of a young man who doesn’t get along with his wife and had an affair. The most interesting aspects of Curtis’ life, his music, are put into the background in order to fill the foreground with the dull gossip of his personal life.
Curtis’ lyrics continue to provide solace to the people who watch this movie and take in this mundane soap opera. The crisis of these biographical dramas is that they provide film studios with an opportunity to retell a story that have been already long-exhausted by the culture industry, simply because they are attached to cultural figures whose work has presence in our lives.
The film is largely focused on Curtis, with very little on the people who helped make him the ghostly embodiment of gloom punk, such as the other members of his band - who went on to become New Order and displayed their own considerable songwriting talents for decades after - or Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. The film does put a fair bit of the focus on Ian’s wife, Deborah, whose biography of Curtis, Touching From a Distance, provided the textual ground for this film. One of the consistent features of these kinds of films, consider also Pollock and Walk the Line, is the strain and anguish of being the wife of an egomaniacal ‘tortured genius’. Pollock, unlike Walk the Line or Control, lets the viewer know that a tortured genius can bring great art into the world and also be a horrible person to those who care the most about him.
Anton Cobijn directed this. He photographed the band back in the day, then began a career directing music videos like Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box.
Now he’s a filmmaker directing a film about the people he knew at the start of his career. Michael Winterbottom’s representation of Curtis and Joy Division in his film about Factory Records, 24 Hour Party People, is a far more compelling portrayal precisely because it restricts its representation of Curtis as the intense lead singer of an innovative band. Joy Division had this enigmatic frontman but they were one of those bands where each member had an equal share in creating a unique sound.