Photographer Anton Corbijn may be a first-time feature filmmaker, but he’s uniquely qualified to make Control, a portrait of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the hugely influential but short-lived band Joy Division. Like painter Julian Schnabel, who launched an impressive filmmaking career with a biopic about his onetime peer Jean-Michel Basquiat, Corbijn knew his subject not only firsthand but, having taken some of the group’s early publicity photos, before celebrity overtook him.
As a result, Control is suffused with a degree of sympathy seen in too few screen biographies of musicians — an intimate and character-driven motivation that simply places it in a different genre than Ray or Walk the Line. It cares deeply for a man who was hard to know; it erases more simplistic impressions of an artist whose suicide at age 23 (on the eve of an American tour that surely would have cemented his stardom) made him an eternal enigma.
Speaking of previous impressions: Some artists receive the unlucky blessing of having multiple films made about them that turn out, like the recent Truman Capote movies, to tell us mostly the same things. Ian Curtis is a rare exception. Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People — the story of Factory Records, in which Joy Division is key — was interested in color, anecdote, and legend. It’s a hugely entertaining film that makes a fine complement to this somber one. (Party People also lingers on musical and career details that are kept in the background here.)
Photographed in black-and-white — not the decadent splotch familiar from Corbijn’s commercial work, but a more naturalistic palette — the film offers thoughtfully composed but never distracting images. The post-industrial town where Joy Division was born is depicted starkly, with pedestrians framed low against tall grids of vacant office-building windows, but scenes between individuals (particularly between Curtis and the two women in his life) are direct and human.
We meet Curtis as a teen listening to Aladdin Sane in his bedroom while experimenting with eye shadow and his sister’s fur coat. He steals his best friend’s girl and marries her quickly; he makes peace with the middle class by taking a job at the employment office, helping the out-of-luck find work.
Then he sees the Sex Pistols and joins a band. The movie isn’t hugely concerned with that band’s lore, but it is fascinated, rightly, with the sight of them onstage: As Curtis, Sam Riley gives a physically remarkable performance, inhabiting the herky-jerk dance movements that some observers described as “possessed.”
Riley succeeds on the personal level as well, digging into the character as he falls in love with another woman, setting Curtis on what seems here to be a nearly inevitable course toward self-destruction. The story’s end is wrenching and sad, but it’s told with respect and tenderness. •
Dir. Anton Corbijn; writ. Deborah Curtis (book),
Matt Greenhalgh; feat. Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Cabell,
Craig Parkinson, James Anthony Pearson (R)