As a longtime fan of New Order, I never really was into Joy Division. Like most fans of post-punk and new wave, I was familiar with “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, with its melancholy, romantic fatalism. I’ve always liked that song, but I never really appreciated Joy Division’s other material. Prior to seeing Control, the only other Joy Division song I knew was “Transmission”. (Both songs are always in heavy rotation on SiriusXM’s First Wave channel.) Most of my resistance was due to the underproduced sound of Joy Division’s songs. Compared to the music produced by New Order from 1985 onward, Joy Division’s songs for the most part sounded as if they were recorded in Dracula’s basement.
In Control, Joy Division’s songs sounded much more alive than I remembered. A bit of internet research revealed that this is due to the songs being recreated for the movie, by the actors playing members of the band. If you’re a Joy Division purist, you may not appreciate these “alternative takes”. I, however, found the live performances of the Joy Division’s songs in the movie to be captivating. They snap with anxious, neurotic electricity, as I’m sure they did back in the late seventies at the band’s live gigs.
While Control is definitely a movie made for Joy Division’s fans, it also serves as an introduction into the life of Ian Curtis for the uninitiated. Before seeing this movie, I honestly didn’t know much about him besides his being the lead singer of the band and committing suicide at twenty-three. Director Anton Corbijn, a longtime fan of their music, put up half of the money to make the film, and he succeeds in providing a multi-faceted depiction of Ian Curtis, offering insight into his life as a husband, social worker, and singer-songwriter for Joy Division.
While the recreated concert footage is definitely worth seeing, I appreciated the attention to detail given the smaller, intimate moments of Curtis’ life, how he went from gifted student to iconic frontman for one of the most well known bands to emerge from the post-punk era. As a sixteen-year old boy, Curtis is shown at home laying in bed, listening to Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, and later Roxy Music. His room is adorned with references to Jim Morrison, Bowie and The Velvet Underground. His attraction to his future wife Deborah starts out with covert hand holding behind the back of a mutual friend. Ian and Deborah later share a hesitant kiss over beers at a Ziggy Stardust concert. A few years pass, and Curtis impulsively proposes to Deborah when they are nineteen and eighteen, respectively. Curtis forgoes school and takes up a job as a social worker. One evening, while at a Sex Pistols concert with his wife, Curtis meets up with several of his friends. They reveal that they are in a band, but they suck. Curtis walks away from the conversation to be with his wife, but mulls over the exchange all the while, his curiosity piqued. After the concert, he casually offers to be their lead singer. History, obviously, has just been made, although none of the participants would have realized it at the time.
As a band, Joy Division originally called themselves “Warsaw”, presumably after the David Bowie song on Low. Not mentioned in the movie is that they changed their name to Joy Division due to another band with Warsaw in their name. Early on, Joy Division had connections to Nazism that probably made people uneasy. The name itself is based on a sex brothel utilized by the Nazis in WWII. None of the members of the band were skinheads or anything like that. I suspect they chose the name because it sounded cool, not because they were interested in Nazism. For those who researched the meaning behind the band’s name, it provided a dark context to the music they made. One interesting tidbit in the movie is that Deborah gave Curtis 400 pounds to cover the costs of the band’s first single. The record sleeve featured a Hitler Youth drummer boy on the cover, with a song about Rudolph Hess inside. The movie never mentions what Deborah thought of how her investment was spent. I can only imagine it being an interesting dinner conversation, to say the least!
The movie is filled with many insider moments that fans certainly will appreciate, and will help bring newcomers into the fold. Everyone refers to bass player Peter Hook as “Hooky”. Rob Gretton brashly offering to become the band’s manager, while their current manager is sitting right in front of him. Tony Wilson fainting after signing the band’s contract with Factory in his own blood. Hooky’s distaste for the name “Buzzcocks” because it has “cocks” in the name, only for them to wind up being their opening act. Curtis crashing at Bernard Sumner’s house, a setting not not unlike staying at his parent’s house in the suburbs. Tony Wilson telling Curtis that a disastrous gig that resulted in a riot was one of the best concerts he’s ever seen, due to the publicity it will bring the band.
Control posits that Ian Curtis took his own life for several reasons. He was anxious about touring the US, where the epileptic fits he would have on stage would open him to ridicule. He was depressed at the aspect of no longer being able to perform on stage anymore. He felt guilt from cheating on his wife and ignoring his baby daughter. He was overwhelmed by the pressure to keep putting out albums and touring. He had to stop taking his medication in order to be able to record music and perform on stage, which only made his epilepsy worse.
With a soundtrack containing music by Bowie, The Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop, Control posits that while Joy Division may have initially been influenced by them, they quickly developed their own style of music that was nothing like the punk and glam rock bands that preceded them. While their shows were filled with punk rock energy, the level of craft Joy Division put into their lyrics and playing was far beyond typical punk rock. Even the band’s attire was more typical of an office worker, and foreshadows the coming New Wave bands who put a premium on style and presentation.
While watching Control, I realized that after Ian Curtis committed suicide, the band was able to continue on without him because they still had the musicianship from Joy Division for the foundation for New Order. New Order (eventually) covered up for the loss of Curtis’ songwriting ability with their willingness to embrace dance music and create impossibly catchy hooks. The song lyrics never again attained the complexity, emotional rawness or atmosphere of what Curtis provided, however.
The movie was filmed in color but printed in black-and-white, which seemed like an odd choice for a movie about a post-punk band from the late seventies. I appreciated Corbijn’s high-gloss approach to the material, though. Concert footage from the period tends to be grainy, out-of-focus or meandering, as if a member of the band gave a grandparent a camera and said “when we take the start, press the START button!” Joking aside, Corbijn’s use of black-and-white gives the movie a sense of permanence, reminiscent of the photography used to capture bands for magazines like Rolling Stone. If you’ve watched music videos for bands like Depeche Mode, U2, Danzig and Metallica, you’re likely to notice similarities with how Corbijn frames scenes in Control.
Ian Curtis’s suicide was briefly mentioned in the movie 24 Hour Party People (2002), where it was depicted callously as something Curtis did out of pure boredom. I’m glad that this movie gave me more context into Curtis’ life. I’m glad I finally watched it, and if you haven’t, I definitely recommend it.