A rock'n'roll suicide
Friday 05 October 2007
The date was 11 April 1980, the location the unabashedly scuzzy venue of the Russell Club in Manchester. Taking the stage without a word, the band kicked off with an instrumental, the drummer pounding out an ominous tattoo, the other three rapt and hunched over their guitars, backs to the audience. The sound just kept coming in great waves, metallic, melodic, oddly possessed. I was 15, and I'd never seen anything quite like Joy Division. I still haven't.
Just over a month later the lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself, aged 23, on the eve of the band's first tour of the US. The story of his troubled life is now the subject of a movie, Control, and it would have been very easy for its director, Anton Corbijn, to romanticise it as one of rock's poetic, whom-the-gods-love, tragedies.
That he hasn't speaks well of his restraint. Corbijn, a Dutch photographer who took iconic pictures of Joy Division for the NME, hasn't even made a music movie, though music is an essential part of it.
Shot in dreamily evocative black and white, Control looks like a throwback to the kitchen-sink school of British movie-making. In the early scenes, the newcomer Sam Riley plays Curtis as the Northern working-class hero, smoking on his narrow bed, listening to David Bowie and shyly romancing the girl, Debbie (Samantha Morton), whom he will soon marry.
Low-key normality predominates: he trudges towards the labour exchange where he has a desk job, he sets up home in Macclesfield with Debbie, he loiters palely in front of cobbled streets and high-rise flats. Yet, even as Joy Division come together and his life becomes more crowded, Curtis always carries the air of a loner, a man set apart by his peculiar vulnerability. There's something plaintively funny in the sight of him clinging to his wife in the midst of her birth-throes; once she delivers their child, he slumps into a chair, exhausted, as if he's the one who has just been through the wringer.
The other band members hardly seem to notice how tormented he is. When he suffers his first epileptic fit, as they drive back to Manchester from London, they are panicked and confused. Later, however, when he collapses on stage mid-song and has to be carried off, the others are so used to his illness that they joke about it. One can't blame them for not understanding: the NHS doctor who prescribes Curtis pills for his condition barely seems to know what to do either.
Life very quickly gets too much for him. His affair with a Belgian girl, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), derails his marriage and guilt exacerbates his depression. Corbijn doesn't make a big deal about the way this came out in his lyrics, but it's there for all to hear in the elegy of "Atmosphere", the breakdown of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", or the threnody of "Dead Souls". When he sings, "They keep calling me/ Keep on calling me", I had my single genuine moment of hair-raising dread in the cinema this year.
What's mysterious is how the band found a match for his words in their music. Early on we see Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway) and Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) decide to form a band after watching the Sex Pistols in Manchester, but once their brief tuneless phase as Warsaw is over, the magnificently strange Gothic of Joy Division seems to derive not from punk – or even from Iggy Pop, David Bowie or Lou Reed – but from the very clangour of the post-industrial North itself. It was surely destiny that the Mancunian impresario Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) should have signed them to a label called Factory.
Corbijn honours this creative otherness without feeling compelled to explain it, and, considering the laconic, introverted nature of Morris and Sumner, and the Salford surliness of Hooky, you sense it's an explanation worth leaving alone.
On the strength of the music and the photography this would already be a fascinating film. What raises it to an unmissable one is Sam Riley's eerie impersonation of Curtis, not just in his opaque, wanly innocent face and the defeated hang of his shoulders, but in those moments on stage when the singer pushed himself frighteningly to the brink, clutching the mike in both hands or breaking into the famous trapped-butterfly dance that seemed imitative of his own epilepsy.
But Riley's performance reaches to something universal, too, the yearning quality of a young man unable to cope with the internal rebellions of his own mind and body. The fit that he suffers alone in his house, towards the end, is dreadfully upsetting and sad. Samantha Morton as Debbie hints at the task of trying to sustain a relationship with Curtis; she too has that wronged, pleading look of the kitchen-sink spouse, left holding a year-old baby and an inadequate idea of the man she loved. She wasn't alone in the latter. Morris admitted in a recent interview that the band were too young to understand Curtis's cries for help; and as for his doom-haunted lyrics, "we never really listened to them, to be honest".
But while his self-destruction was a tragedy, the film refuses to turn Curtis into someone more profound than he really was. Weakness in dealing with the consequences of infidelity and an inefficient healthcare system were the main factors in his undoing, as they have been for countless others. It's just that he also happened to be the heart and soul of an amazing rock band. Control is a tremendous memorial.
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