It’s easy to forget sometimes how effortlessly someone can fade from a person to a legend. It can be as simple as a good story, an early death, and a little time. Twenty-eight years after his death at age 23, we have more of his story.
A dual release of rockudrama Control and traditional documentary Joy Division attempts to fill in the colors of an unfinished sketch and ends up as grey and haunting as the Manchester location that dominates Ian Curtis‘ story.
Wracked by the onset of grand mal seizures, rocketing fame (in a decidedly anti-fame scene), increasingly demanding touring schedules, a faltering marriage, fatherhood, and the general depression that often surrounds guys in their twenties who are struggling to figure out who they are while putting on a good face, is it any wonder Ian Curtis danced like a spastic?
Both films focus on Curtis as the center of the story, and it’s hard not to when your hero’s end is tragic, but you’re left wondering about the other three dudes—who went on after Curtis’ death to form New Order, one of the most influential bands of the 80s and 90s. Still, there’s only so much time and Curtis is a fascinating figure.
Like any drama based on actual events, Control plays like a classic tragedy where Curtis struggles through life in a decaying industrial town, but dreams of escape. That his escape is into books by monumental downers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky should leave little wonder how he came to his own violent end. But in the meantime he falls in love, has his life changed by a Sex Pistols show, starts a band, has a kid, falls in love with someone else, records two genre defining albums, and then…well, you know.
The specter of Curtis’ suicide looms solemnly and spookily over both films. We all know how this story ends, and perhaps that makes it difficult to construct a story that surprises the viewer, but director Anton Corbijn does a bang up job showing Manchester in the late 70s and the counterculture that sprang from an increasingly repressive national malaise. Coupled with 2002’s Twenty Four Hour Party People and you have a complete picture of the time and place that gave us Joy Division, New Order, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, and countless other northern British bands.
The greatest service Corbijn’s film does is to Ian’s widow Deborah Curtis, and no wonder since it’s based on her book Touching From a Distance, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for a woman (barely out of her teens, actually) left to raise a child on her own while her husband drifts farther away, literally and figuratively. To have lived with the man who wrote “Dead Souls” could not have been easy.
Grant Gee‘s documentary, Joy Division, while more staid and presumably unscripted, actually shows more of the humor and human side of the band that drafted the template Goths have followed for 30 years. Interviews with the surviving members of Joy Division and the man who gave them their first national exposure, the late Tony Wilson, show just how young and goofy the members of the band, including the iconic and tortured Ian Curtis really were.
It’s hard to imagine after years of idolatry that even Joy Division had to start somewhere, and like most other bands that somewhere is nowhere and in front of nobody. Guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris (along with a small cast of various friends, musicians, and English eccentrics) recount long, cold van rides to sparsely attended shows with shitty sound and no pay. Interestingly, while there are quotes from Curtis’ widow, she doesn’t make an appearance in the film, thus robbing it of the other side of the story that was captured in Corbijn’s. It would have been a nice balance to see that story told in this setting, but the memories of the others will have to do.
Also celebrated, and rightly so, in creating the Joy Division legend is late manager Rob Gretton and producer Martin Hennett who together refined the image and sound of the band. That both seem to have been slightly crazy and confident beyond their perceived abilities adds to their place in that legend.
My advice, watch both films in the dark and with the volume turned up. You might walk away feeling slightly depressed, but you’ll have some great dance moves in your back pocket.
Trailer: Joy Division DVD