He's got control again: Wilson film to chart life of Joy Division singer

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The Independent Culture

When the Manchester band Joy Division started out 28 years ago, they could scarcely play their instruments, made just two albums and disbanded within three years. But further evidence of the enduring appeal of their music and the Manchester music scene they inhabited in the 1970s and 1980s arrived yesterday with details of a film about the troubled life of lead singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself on the eve of Joy Division's first US tour.

The film, being made under the working title Control, a quality Curtis painfully lacked, is the second in as many years to focus on the post-punk scene that developed in the city.

Rival teams have planned biopics of Curtis's life, in an attempt to follow the success of Michael Winterbottom's 2002 hit 24-Hour Party People and tap interest demonstrated by Morrissey's spectacular return to the limelight last year.

But Curtis's widow Deborah - on whose celebrated memoir of life with the band the film will be based - has been persuaded that the US producer Orian Williams (Shadow of the Vampire) is to be entrusted with the story which will bring to life a man who, to many, remains a legend in name alone.

Mrs Curtis will act as co-producer to Williams, along with Tony Wilson, whose Factory Records label formed the basis of Winterbottom's film. The highly rated young Manchester writer Matt Greenhalgh, creator of Manchester's BBC drama Burn It will develop Mrs Curtis's book Touching From a Distance into a screenplay.

Wilson insisted yesterday that the rival bid, with London-based Neal Weisman and musical input from New Yorker Moby, could not succeed without Mrs Curtis's co-operation.

The engagement of Greenalgh and Wilson demonstrates the effort Williams is making to keep the film true to Manchester and to the Curtis "look and accent". At a press conference near the Lesser Free Trade Hall, where Joy Division played, he ruled out American actors.

While Winterbottom dealt with the story of Curtis's death, the film aims to capture the energy of the Macclesfield-born singer. "Given his suicide, there's so much concentration on the dark side of his life," said Todd Eckert, another producer. "We want to also concentrate on the energy that made people love Ian and Joy Division, and put difficult elements such as his epilepsy into perspective. In the US, there is intense interest in this individual who remains such an influence but whose face is unknown."

Curtis joined Joy Division after answering an advert for lead vocalist in 1976. The group's first album, Unknown Pleasures, revealed the distinctive voice and bleak, expressive style which became famous on songs including "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "She's Lost Control''. The band began to record sessions for John Peel. "I didn't discover Joy Division; they made magnificent records and I played them because I loved them," Peel said.

Much of the band's originality derived from the dysfunctional, introspective personality of Curtis, a songwriter and manic performer whose stage presence was likened by one rock journalist to "a demented marionette or a man in flames".

Then, on 18 May 1980, just as the band prepared to leave, Curtis was found hanged in his Macclesfield home. A copy of Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" was on his stereo next to a note which read, 'At this moment, I wish I were dead. I just can't cope with any more.' The singer was epileptic and there were suggestions then that his depression may have been caused by mishandled medication.

The surviving members of Joy Division - Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris - had more success as New Order, although Sumner said a year later: "Ian's death will affect me now and it will affect me for ever." New Order built up a national following from their northern base, paving the way for the success of the raucous "Madchester" bands The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.

Musicians from Bono and the Cure to the Gallagher brothers cite Joy Division as formative influences on their music.

Mrs Curtis's memoir, published in 1995, describes the effects of living with her husband's infidelity, his obsession with pain and a cult of masculinity antithetical to women, babies, and family life, which the band adopted. At their greatest fame, they barred wives and girlfriends from gigs. "If Ian was going to play the tortured soul on stage, it would be easier without the watchful eye of the woman who washed his underpants," Mrs Curtis wrote.