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Thursday, March 13, 2008
Loss and control: the short life of Ian Curtis
Special to The Japan Times
Some bands become famous; others wind up legendary. But what is it that sets a legend apart from their Top 40 brethren? A certain intensity, power and integrity can do it, but often it is also a story, a myth of sorts; and usually not a cheerful one. Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett, Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious — no happy endings there. If great art arises from personal torment, then this pantheon is rock's pained hall of fame.
Joy Division, the late-1970s band from Manchester who broke the postpunk movement, were never mainstream- famous in their time, and they're still an acquired taste even today. But they were — and are — certainly legendary.
Their music took the negativity and nihilism that punk had unleashed to its logical conclusion in two albums of despair, doubt and poetic bleakness. This was capped by singer Ian Curtis' suicide on May 18, 1980, at age 23. Their final single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," came out weeks later, adorned in a headstone-marble gray sleeve, with lyrics that echoed with a suicide note's finality ("You cry out in your sleep, all my failings exposed"). The intensity of feeling in Curtis' words became undeniable, both incredibly moving and troubling. The stuff of legend.
At the time, Curtis' lyrics, even those about love, seemed to be part of a metaphysical, abstract exploration of loneliness, despair and existence. Some three decades later, along comes the film "Control" to show us how wrong that view was, and how deeply, heart-wrenchingly personal his songs were.
"Control" was made by first-time director Anton Corbijn, a noted music-video director (U2, Bjork, Nirvana, et al.) whose career actually began as a photographer, when at age 24 (in 1979), he was inspired to leave his native home in the Netherlands for England to take photos of one band in particular: Joy Division.
Corbijn's black-and-white photos of the band for music magazines such as NME defined the band's image at the time, and his are hands one can trust in bringing Curtis' story to the screen. (It was already treated once, in a rather off-the-cuff way, in 2002's "24-Hour Party People.") Corbijn endeavors to remain true to the music, the time and the people close to Curtis, and he largely succeeds with this moving, beautifully shot elegy.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Corbijn describes what originally drew him to the band back in the '70s.
"As a young boy in Holland, without speaking much English, it wasn't really the lyrical content," he says. "But in his voice you could feel an urgency, despair. And the postpunk attitude was closer to my heart than the punk attitude. As the late (head of Factory, Joy Division's label) Tony Wilson once put it, punk's attitude was 'f**k you,' while postpunk's was 'I'm f**ked.' I think I subscribe more to the latter. So it was perfect music for the zeitgeist."
Corbijn also waxes lyrical about the cover art for the band's first album, "Unknown Pleasures," which shows white graph-like waves on a black background (it's actually a diagram of light emissions from a pulsar star).
"It was so beautiful, and so mysterious," says Corbijn. "No picture of the band on it anywhere."
Corbijn admits that moving abroad to follow a band "sounds a little bit stupid now," but not at the time. "In the '70s, music played a far bigger role in our lives than it does these days," he explains.
Albums were not semianonymous data to be dumped onto i-Pods; disposable and instantly replaceable commodities. Rather they were treasured and fetishized, totemic parts of one's identity, to be contemplated and absorbed.
Corbijn's film shows Curtis (played by Sam Riley, lead singer of 10,000 Things, from Leeds, England) to be one of those obsessive listeners, driven by music. The film's opening scenes show a teenage Curtis walking home with a David Bowie album, which he listens to on a cheap record player in a depressing housing-project bedroom. There he puts on eyeliner (like his glam hero) and preens in front of a mirror to "Jean Genie." It's a classic example of rock as escapism — and the postindustrial reality of an economically depressed Manchester with unemployment at about 20 percent was by all accounts one worth escaping.
Yet Curtis' quandary becomes his inability to escape his roots to reinvent himself in the way that his idol, Bowie, did so many times. For before he turns 20, Curtis is married to his teenage sweetheart, Deborah (played by Samantha Morton), and soon becomes a father.
After forming the band with mates Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris (who would later become New Order), Curtis finds himself torn between life on the road as an idolized singer of a band that is clearly taking off — with all the freedom and fans' affection that came with it — and life at home, with a dull day job and diapers to change. Complicating matters is an increasingly intense affair with Belgian journalist/rock chick Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), and Curtis' sudden affliction with epilepsy (about which, curiously, he had written earlier in the song "She's Lost Control.")
Much in the film is based on the memoir by Deborah Curtis, "Touching at a Distance." "Obviously the book is an incredible source of information," says Corbijn. "Unlike these days, people didn't get filmed or photographed all the time back then. When we did research on Ian Curtis, we never managed to find a single interview with him on film. So we don't really know how he talked, or walked . . . only in some live performances, generally of bad quality. So you need a lot of information. Debbie's book has a lot, but it's her life story, so the film could never be just that. I needed Annik in there, because I know she was a very important person for Ian in his last year."
Corbijn spoke to a number of people before making the film, including Tony Wilson, Ian's mother and sisters, and his former bandmates. One problem was conflicting stories: "The New Order guys contradict themselves all the time," says Corbijn. "They remember everything differently. So you go with the most probable story."
Key to the film is a mesmerizing performance by Riley as Curtis. He perfectly grasps the singer's narcissism and vulnerability, the curse of any romantic, and fully embodies the confusion and pain that anyone who's ever been involved in a love triangle will recognize.