Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Control - Ian Curtis biopic

The problem for a lot of rock-star biopics is that their central characters are so well-known that the actors who portray them have to bear at least a passing resemblance to make the film seem credible.
The film John and Yoko took on two of the most iconic figures in rock history but when I watched it I kept thinking that Mark McGann and Kim Miyori sort of looked a bit like Lennon and Ono, but not quite.
Perhaps the most successful example of the genre was Oliver Stone's The Doors in which Val Kilmner became a near-dead ringer for Jim Morrison - both in terms of looks and how he sang - while Kyle McLachlan was a more than passable Ray Manzerak.
Sam Riley's depiction of Ian Curtis in Control is uncanny - not so much when he is just being a clerk in a job centre than when he is performing on stage.
His facial contortions while he sings and the twitching body movements perfectly captured the few video snatches that still exist of Curtis on stage with Joy Division.
The band emerged from Manchester in the late 1970s on the back of punk.
It is probably a bit of cliché for films set in the north of England to be filmed in black and white, cashing in on the 'its grim up north' stereotype.
But it works here because Joy Division was such a stark band ¬ stripped down instrumentation and dark lyrics.
Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, is based on the book Touching From a Distance, written by Curtis’s wife Debbie about her relationship with her husband who died by suicide in 1980 aged just 23.
It takes us from when Curtis is at school and meets and marries Debbie when they are both still teenagers and before he becomes involved in music.
They are shown standing at a Sex Pistols concert, Curtis mesmerised and Debbie nestling in to him, clearly uncomfortable with the pogoing bodies all around her.
Curtis has a dual existence as an efficient and friendly clerk in a job centre who lives in a terraced house with his wife and baby daughter while at the same time fronting the edgy and innovative Joy Division.
It is far from the romanticised image of a rock star, particularly after Curtis collapses suffering from an epileptic fit and is put on a dozen different medicines that bring him our in rashes and cause his gums to bleed.
When on tour he meets Annick, a Belgian fan, with whom Curtis begins an affair.
Each time he comes off tour he returns to his terraced house where his wife and child are waiting for him and his underwear is hung out to dry in the kitchen.
He loves two women and can not give up one to commit himself to the other and the Control does not try to judge him on that, although given that it is based on Debbie’s recollections there is more depth to her than to Annick.
The film worked for me because it fleshed out a story that I was already half aware of and was based on a singer and a band that I always respected but didn’t really know that much about. Yet I surprised myself by recognising nearly all the featured tracks in Control even though I have never owned a Joy Division album and had only really heard their material on various compilation albums.
Curtis is portrayed as the epitome of the tortured artist, writing poetic lyrics, delivering passionate performances, battling a debilitating illness and, as he testified in his most famous song, being torn apart by love and ultimately driven to join the notorious pantheon of musicians who died long before their time. See my dead rock stars report here.


Fionnchú said...

I watched this about a year-and-a-half ago with my older teenaged son. We liked it a lot, and the "isolation" was enhanced by the fact there were about six people in the arthouse theater crowd. I read Jon Savage's review titled "Death Disco" of "Unknown Pleasures" when it came out in "Sounds" (or maybe NME or "Melody Maker") in a summer garden in a village on an exchange student program in South Yorkshire, not far from Macclesfield. Savage dramatically opened with telling us what the sleeve looked like. I imagined its contents before finding them out for myself when I got home to America. Hearing that way about the band for the first time, before listening to their songs, always stuck with me powerfully. Pre-MySpace or iTunes!

Added verisimilitude, for me: "Control" actors played the JD songs themselves. I like such live and demo versions (as on "Heart & Soul" and the "Les Bains Douches" CDs) better than the studio ones; I never liked "Closer" very much.

My son noted that Riley had a very bit part in "24-Hour Party People." He had the good fortune to play another Mancunian, Mark E. Smith (who appeared in that film as himself, furthermore!).

Phil said...

I recall this coming out around the time of the documentary - both great companion pieces. I was amazed at their honesty in regards to Curtis which is as refreshing as it is brutal.
I was at a festival in Meath around 10 years ago when The Frames finished their set with a cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' which was exilarating. It's a shame the rest of their output since then gets progressively worse and worse.