Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Joe Anderson, James Pearson, Harry Treadaway and Craig Parkinson.
A rock biography that attempts to chronicle the life and times of Ian Curtis, the late lead singer of Joy Division, the band that spearheaded the post-punk scene in the UK. Despite eventual success, Curtis’ troubled existence presaged his ending of his own life. Another mythos of a rock icon gone before his time. Tragic? Typical? Intriguing? Perhaps all three. Then again, maybe all rockumentaries are the things of idealism.
“I remember nothing…”
I know that inherently all blogs are narcissistic. We spin our tales, we spout our opinions, we reach out to an audience that are thankful for the right web hit that might sate our egos, which all too often becomes a maw that cannot be fed. I think it comes from our overly-rewarded extrovert culture in these our United States. Everyone’s gotta have their fifteen minutes…or else. Granted it’s not isolated to just the ‘Mericun way of living, but social networking was born nary yonder, and it’s mostly become a reflection of, well, us.
The Interweb allows us all the squishy luxury of having the bully pulpit to jet forth whatever we think, feel, opine and try to compensate for (like that field goal in senior year high school you tanked. Sorry) twenty-four seven. And by the by, I am not above such musings. For forty-plus installments here at RIORI, it’s been a low level version of LOOK AT ME! Hell, essentially that is what all blogs are all about. Yeah. Almost all of them are established to translate personal info into a public forum. RIORI is no different. Unlike a few other blogs—and put this on the record)—I am not exempt.
Just had to get that thing out into the air.
So in that vein, allow me to wax poetic about my salad days spent in college. Quit groaning. Don’t fear. It is relevant to this week’s installment. It’s a winding way however. Come, take my hand…
Like a lot of you folks who were fortunate enough to go there (or had no choice since the army was full), college was probably the equivalent of scales falling from your eyes. All to learn, the wonders and blunders of weed and booze, establishing new relationships—romantic and otherwise—being cut off from whatever bullsh*t high school universe you thought was the be all and end all. To quote Aladdin, a whole new world.
Perhaps you were down with athletics, or found some political cause to spray paint on your banner. Maybe you found a like-minded circle of friends to just hang with at the local bar or coffee house and chew over classwork and the like. Maybe you were a musician, a band geek (like me) and elbowed your way into a trio of goofballs consisting of two guitars and a bass in need of a drummer (this is the point where the blogger is waving his arms frantically).
Or maybe you were just a decent student. I was the last two. Well, the vote’s not in on the student part yet. For those lapping at the narcissistic part of this blog, I got a degree in English and Textual Studies from Syracuse University with multiple minors in Secondary Education, Writing and Continental Philosophy. Namely, I’m a well-educated bullsh*t artist, but one with a sheepskin! I guess that counts for something. Did I mention that I currently make a living as a line cook? Go Gen X!
Another thing that may have happened to you away at college: you might have had your musical horizons broadened. I certainly did.
My time away from home expanded my ears quite a bit. Back in high school being a member of the marching band, I was naturally curious about music. Mostly rock and roll, past and otherwise. My fave musicians at the time (and most still are) were U2, Rush, the Beatles (duh), R.E.M., the Police, the Replacements, the Who, Pixies and the Velvet Underground. With that playlist alone, I earned a lot of scorn, not to mention wedgies. The list indeed—and continues—to on and on.
Once in college, and also still a bando, I glommed on to my peers tastes in music via their recommendations, trading CDs (the original file-sharing protocol) or just catching a beat walking by an open dorm room (that’s how I discovered Swervedriver. Shut up). Being away from the insular cultural backwater that was my stomping grounds, I found myself free to dabble in a holy host of bands that were either unheard of, misunderstood or outright mocked by my unworthy constituents back at my old alma mater minor. I tell you, listen to the “wrong” thing back there and you were pegged as a geek before the term “geek” was en vogue. I used to get barraged with insults from fellow bandos—ostensibly students of music—for enjoying Depeche Mode, the Descendents and New Order.
Circa 1993 I got hip to said pop group New Order. Their latest release then was the Republic album. This may sound funny nowadays, but thanks to MTV I got into this band; NO’s video for “Regret” got some rotation. Being entranced and also being the anal nerd that I was, I sought out every album by New Order. Got ‘em all too, pre-iTunes (or Napster, come to think of it) on disc. Still have them kicking around somewhere. There was this handy-dandy music store a block down from my high school that sold albums at reasonable/pre-Sony Studios prices. They also would sell the geeky sh*t I got so caught up in. The owner sold CDs at a fraction of the then going rate, like nothing was sold for more than ten bucks. To put this into perspective, in the early 90’s you’d go to the mall and had to scrounge up at least 17 bucks for a new CD at The Wall. Again, this was early 90’s prices. Sadly enough, the place eventually closed down. Something about the owner cooking the books. I personally think the guy got squeezed out by the Best Buy that had sprouted up nearby.
Hey. Here’s a curious sub-story, apropos of nothing: I bumped into my German teacher there, a gentle guy who had his kid in tow. I had already scooped up my weekly CD, and quite literally bumped into him. He asked to see what I had bought. It was Lindsey Buckingham’s Out of the Cradle, still a fave of mine today. Apparently being a Fleetwood Mac fan, he approved of my purchase. I hated Fleetwood Mac as an ensemble, but Lindsey’s guitar work caught my attention, so there. Do you know how f*cking freaky it is being down pop culturally with one of your high school teachers? Learn that!
Anyway, in the background against the jeers of whom I figured were musical philistines, I think I heard a subconscious buzzing. There’s nothing wrong with liking left-of-center music. Recall again it was the early 90’s. Nevermind and Use Your Illusion I & II was the soundtrack for the better half of my high school tenure. I was a Rush fan. Still am. I disliked Nirvana. Still do. I had reached a quandary.
It’s at this point in my rambling that I thank my degree from SU.
I was taking this class called Surrealism. No, really. It was a legit class and part of the program I had to take to get the necessary credits. Regardless of the odd criteria, I stuck myself behind the desk. The class consisted of a lot of philosophy and politics on the concept of reality, or multiple realties, or what subverted reality. Right. This was an actual English class by the way.
Not to say that it wasn’t interesting. A small door was left ajar for some very weird ideas to stick in my mind. The class was essentially a symposium, and long, winding discussions and debates actually counted as assignments, designed to probe the minds of not only the students but the teacher as well. Example? I submitted a bulls*tting paper relating to a calculus algorithm to the prominence of Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces as social commentary aside of the UK political climate circa 1979.
Right. I didn’t get laid much.
That being said, my sucks-on-toast essay barely within the parameters of the syllabus deposit. It was later regarded as acceptable under the aegis of the course outline. I was expected to explain my obtuse piece of grade-gathering crapola to the prof with both a naïve and sh*t-eating grin. It passed. You’re welcome.
However someone else in that class one-upped me with the obtuse, but with far less manure. So much so that I caged her act later in the semester. Hers was all so simple, sans mathematical bamboozling. Something simpler about music and it’s reflecting social climes. Once I cleared the wax out of them, my ears perked up. I was a bando, after all. Did I mention that?
Due to the decay of memory I can’t recall her name. I can see her face, but…hell, let’s call her Samantha. I am forever in her debt. For her Surrealism project, Samantha had a neat—though now unfortunately outmoded—presentation about the post-punk music scene in the UK from the late 70s into the 80s how it reflected…well, you know, whatever. She brought a portable cassette deck with her, and also a custom mixtape (for those of you born after 1995, check Wikipedia) of appropriate songs as cues during her readings. We all had a similar assignment involving going in front of the class requiring us to deliver some academic schpiel, utilizing some tech be it PowerPoint or a website or blah blah blah. Sam a low-tech opportunity to great advantage.
For one of the interludes, Samantha played “She’s Lost Control” by Joy Division. I was intrigued. The metallic drumming, the fractured, skeletal guitar, the probing bass runs and of course, Ian Curtis’ sullen, intense voice. Sam educated the class, and especially me that New Order sprung from this band. I was agog. That cheery, danceable synth pop band was born from this moody music? Sam played a few more Joy Division songs. “Transmission,” “Disorder,” “Digital” and on. Trying to keep a long story short, she strangled my attention with JD.
I jaunted over to the indie music store, one free of any charges regarding questionable bookkeeping. Thanks to them, over two semesters I had purchased all of Joy Division’s albums. Their live recordings, the odds and sods, the bootlegs, the etcetera. When the box set came out in ’97…well, again, you get it.
I was enraptured.
In the newb phases as a Joy Division disciple, here’s a kicker: in 1997 rock photographer Anton Corbijn released his huge Famouz coffee table book. The thing was the size of an atlas, pregnant with portraits far and ranging from Sting to Peter Gabriel to John Lydon, and an intro by Bono to boot! I caught a glimpse of this bomb in a pile at the local bookstore. Naturally, being a U2 fan and recognizing Corbijn’s album covers, I cracked the binding. I sh*t you not but it opened to the page of Ian Curtis, singer of Joy Division, squatting on an amp, trying to enjoy a ciggie but hunched over oh so slightly and pinching the bridge of his nose as if warding off a headache. He looked like an elegant reject from Rodin’s studio. “She’s Lost Control” bounced through my head. The book cost fifty dollars. I didn’t have a lot of pocket cash. I bought it regardless with my parents’ “emergency” Visa (I also declared an emergency when Weezer’s Pinkerton went on sale). All in all, Famouz is still a favorite book of mine to thumb through, Curtis’ image not withstanding.
And for all of this, I have Sam to thank sharing my college days with opening my ears a bit wider.
At SU my three fave bands were Sugar, the Jam and Joy Division. As you may have guessed by now, Control is not about Bob Mould’s nor Paul Weller’s follies.
Let’s reel it in. To the matter at hand: the movie!…
Ian Curtis (Riley) is the epitome of lowly. He has a going nowhere education leading to a going nowhere career putting up with fellow nowheres on their way to nowhere. Maybe to the Midlands. As a youth however, he wished he was Bowie, a sexy, provocative pop singer. The idea never escaped his imagination, but would-be pop star dreams don’t pay the bills. A job as an unemployment counselor does, at least to the bottom line. It especially allows paying mind to what things could be. In any case, the nowhere is bearing down on Ian’s so-called life like a careening locomotive with only one track to guide it.
One night on a pub crawl, just to get away from the f*cking nowhere, Ian meets up with his mates. They’re jamming at their local watering hole with their going nowhere band. As the guitarist declares, “Everything’s sh*te.” Ian can sympathize; the music scene in Manchester is rather blah. The pop scene is stale, not unlike their lives. And there doesn’t seem to be an end to the boredom as well as the wastrels that barrage Ian’s work desk.
Ian gets an idea. He’ll take a shot at their singer. His friends laugh and balk at first. Ian figures, “No matter.”
Then the boys get a lead on a show at local Manchester Polytechnic. Some tosspots from London calling themselves the Sex Pistols are tearing up the stage. They see the sights and Ian, Bernie, Hooky and Stephen (Pierson, Anderson and Treadaway, respectively) realize their band needs to make some sound changes. Literally.
“We’re called Joy Division.”
Theirs is a mutant form of punk rock evolving from the warped Manchester backwaters, these four misfits. Their music is subversive, yes. But with undertones of grey, unlike the epistolary Pistols. Quite left of center, modestly catchy but barely approaching pop. A lot of the credit goes to the once starry-eyed, now determined singer Curtis. But his lyricist chair now has to spend the other half of his default life with the British unemployed: miserable, disenfranchised and f*cking broke, spiritually and otherwise. Or instead live the life as frontman for a new and fast approaching critically laudable band. Looks like there aren’t similar prospects available as Ian faces on the daily. This terrifies him. And who would it not?
But really, there’s this new band to consider; the office job just is something between gigs. It really might be his best way out. To be like Bowie, but better. To transcend all that rubbish. Oh, yes. He’s a recent family man; very un-rock and roll. He’s also a drinker; very rock and roll. He’s also a recently diagnosed epileptic, now on a regimen of pills (which he ignores). Not rock and roll, either. It seems that the waves and eventual riptides of life might become too much pressure than Ian can endure. So a choice has to be made. Is it either it being a pop star, a husband and father, a cripple…or a legacy…?
I have a lot to say about this film. No surprise there. Chalk it up to the narcissistic screed I opened this installment with, okay?
First, I sincerely don’t know why this film tanked at the box office. I mean it was expertly shot by an esteemed rock photojournalist; if you are uninitiated with Corbijn’s work, check out the cover of U2’s The Joshua Tree as a prime example. The man knows his way about cameras and rock stars. The movie has a solid story, with plenty of true-to-life interpretations (“You all forgot Rudolf Hess!”) expected in a docudrama, and pretty decent acting to boot. What more could one ask for in a rockumentary (a term I’ve always hated)?
A while back I said I swore off indie films (check out the Jesus’ Son installment), but the subject matter here naturally interested me, and it also fell under the auspice of The Standard. I still do believe most indie films are made with no real intention of making a profit, at least by Hollywood standards. Such films, by my research, at least accrue enough to cover the movie’s budget. Not Control. Granted, it had limited release. It did, however show at my local community theatre. I reside in the aforementioned cultural armpit of PA, where the stats of the local high school football teams are taken way too seriously, and local elections are decidedly not. To think that any iteration of Joy Division’s legacy came here…Well, that’s for another story. However, even with only a handful of screenings out there, some gains would’ve had to be made. This film garnered a lot of critical praise, but that often doesn’t translate into respectable box office sales. Even to compensate for the meager budget Control had.
To put it into perspective, not too long ago I was watching the indie—or at least under the radar—flick Nebraska with my father. Ol’ Dad’s got the streaming Netflix on his TiVo and wanders through whatever catches his eye on a given night (mostly foreign soft-core porn; God bless streaming). This inadvertently dictates what that evening’s viewing would be. I came over, crashed on the couch, and tuned in if only to watch Bruce Dern’s antics; he is a choice actor of mine, always playing charming, madcap characters. His portrayal in Nebraska was decidedly not madcap, but still charming, and his performance there garnered him his first Oscar nom for Best Actor as well as my usual respect. It was a good film. It had a wider release than the likes of Control. It got tons of critical praise. It did kinda sh*tty at the multiplex.
What I’m getting at is that based on relative example, my personal experience and me reading the numbers. Literally The Numbers. It’s a movie money website that gives one all the ups and downs financially of all, all, the movies out there. Its statistics are eye-opening to say the least. Again, there really isn’t a reason why Control failed to catch on around the indie circuit, even with minor promo from the media. It mostly ended up a “break even” kind of situation.
In sum, it was a failure.
I outright blame the subject matter. Not unlike my reaction to Sam’s presentation, you could either have been knocked out of your chair or knocked away from the theatre by this movie, purposely marching towards the exit with your head hurting. It’s not like (ugh) rockumentaries can neither be popular nor lucrative. Scorsese’s bio of the Rolling Stones, Shine a Light was both laudable as well as profitable, not to mention the granddaddy of all rock-docs, Woodstock. Then again, there was U2’s abortive Rattle and Hum, as well as the Germs’ history, What We Do Is Secret. Within the parameters of the musical, historical documentary/biopic—with all its nuances and attention to both detail and trivia—Control was ultimately a niche movie about a more or less cult band (at least here in the US). The target audience on this side of The Pond would be few and far between.
Ultimately, a good movie’s a good movie, regardless of how many ducats are gathered. Or fail to. Control is a good movie. It’s not a great movie. In some ways it’s pretty formulaic. Average Joe as aspiring rock star, with all the joys and pitfalls that come with that. But Control is a sturdy little film. It’s rock solid—no pun intended—in its execution, albeit familiar.
And as the star—our avatar—Riley makes for a serviceable Curtis, or at least who audience are to believe is the man. Riley doesn’t really look like Curtis, but is boyish as he was. In both appearance and youthful naïveté, Riley is quite good at emoting with his face. There are some actors typified by having stony expressions (e.g.: Wayne, Eastwood, Willis, etc). Riley, though not as well-known as most, Riley’s bright features work wonders for us witnessing him grow from clear-eyed to realistic to depressed over the span of the film. Specifically, as for getting a feel for the doomed frontman, Riley does the majority of his acting with his eyes. The world we see is his, both figuratively and literally. This world is very small in Riley’s eyes, but just over the horizon there could be something…else. Curtis the man was not iconic, but rather the anti-iconic. Typical working-class drudge in a city full of them. Like I said, typical rags-to-rags story of the man who might be king, if not for his drawbacks. It’s a formula, yes. But it’s a tried and true one, and for the most part, it works here.
Samantha Morton as Curtis’ wife Debbie is the true actor in this movie. She gives, as they say, “great face” albeit a tad fragile. She’s the one who has the range of emotions to draw on here, unlike some of the more wooden characters that populate Control. Debbie is timid, fragile and at the same time strong as the anchor that tries to keep Ian grounded. Her role as the constant reminder of his duties as family man and breadwinner first and being Bowie second is strong. From her performance comes the element of conflict that drives the story. And boy, as the story unfolds does the conflict do a number on our hero. Ian’s downward spiral starts early, but gradually, and Debbie is there to reflect all of it to us.
Of course the soundtrack is great. Riley’s voice is pretty good, too. I kinda feel that the actors were picked mostly for their musical prowess first and their acting—although serviceably decent—chops second. And they are playing their own instruments for the film too, which is nice. All too many rock movies seem to have the actors merely ape for the camera. As for the rest of the supporting cast, all have their needful parts to play. I find Anderson a standout. As Hooky, he plays the stalwart with belligerence and wry wit. As evidenced from his acrimonious and very public split from New Order, the real-life counterpart seemed rather aggressive, not unlike his lead basslines, a key component of both bands. His was the heavy, the tough bloke who could be seen as the flipside of the mostly gentle, somewhat timorous portrayal that Riley presented.
I could make a case that the the pseudo-mockumentary 24 Hour Party People could be a companion piece to Control. I mentioned that movie in the previous installment covering Tristam Shandy. Party People did cover in brief the short, misspent life of Joy Division, especially the inner turmoil that plagued the early years of the band. That was a movie that had its tongue firmly in cheek, whereas Control plays out as a dark ride. However, like Control, Party People possesed the air of discovering music from the outside in, rather than the other way around as it is here. Again, in the self-important sentiment I relayed earlier, here’s a story. A confessional as may be.
When in college, I was with a girl whom I gained to be more adept with indie music than I. She loved the Pixies and also Rush as I did. She exposed me to Sugar’s single “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” I immediately became a Bob Mould disciple. She shined me on to Buffalo Tom, Tori Amos and others. She was personally a dead end, but as for musical broadening expanses, I thank her. Here’s the curious part: she never heard of New Order, and even less about JD. Not long after we had broken up, and I was hip deep in my manic music collecting, she politely confronted me one day and asked me to explain Joy Division to her. Not listen to, explain. She never heard the albums (but she eventually picked up their mediocre compilation Permanent). She was almost a bit miffed at not knowing a band that I more or less organically discovered on my own. At any rate, I played for her Closer. She didn’t like it. I think it’s great. A line in the sand was drawn. Did you ever notice how cagey we get when we’re into our pet bands about sharing close info on them; the stuff only you think should be known?
…Where was I going with this?
Right. Discovering music from the outside in. A message—more like a subtext—in Control is about discovery. Mostly from within. Riley demonstrates his character more or less shoulders his way into the music scene. Sure, he’s a Bowie nut, but the persona on stage is decidedly not Bowie. If you ever get a chance to see archive performances of JD, you can watch Curtis virtually channel his epilepsy into his frontman skills. Riley follows music from the outside in, and Corbijn’s once again solid eye for catching rock ‘n roll on film does not waver. Let’s face it: the best technical aspect of Control is the cinematography.
Corbijn is a photographer, and his cinematic eye reflects that. The framing is understandable Corbijn. Everything is deliberate and centered. No space is wasted, and a lot—I mean a lot—of the close up shots are designed to place the actors’ faces squarely front and center. Simply put, everything is tight, almost claustrophobic. There are virtually no panning shots, another reflection of Corbijn as photographer, and what there is of them are rather angular and affecting. There is a real nifty scene where the boys are watching the Pistols perform for the first time. Every actor has a unique facial expression, distinguishing each of their inner emotional gears a’turnin’. You can almost see the lights going off in their collective heads.
Seeing that Control is a bio, it comes as no surprise I’ve been harping on that the acting and portrayals are the guts of the movie. The atmosphere is thin, verging on (perhaps) deliberately nonexistent. The nascent, final delivery of atmosphere only comes at the end, (SPOILER ALERT!) and depicts a tasteful suicide scene, as any. Sigh. Like I said, the story is a familiar one, almost a pigeonholed folk tale. Still, though plain, the acting is durable enough to make Control compelling enough to see how the story unfolds, even if we as the audience knows how it ends. They key is how it gets there, and the undercurrent of doom is well-conveyed by our cast of simple, but effective actors.
Apart from the messages of discovery and loss, Control ultimately offers a kindly, practical glimmer of what it’s like to be a “rock star” minus the assumed bangles and beads. At heart, the film is a journey. One of two marriages. One with Ian and Debbie and one with Ian and the band. And perhaps a third: love of an ideal. Despite the well-tread plot and solid, but somewhat hollow acting, Control does its best to dignify the old-as-time story of fallen hero. It’s tasteful, honest and colorful at times (despite Corbijn’s trademark black-and-white imagery). It rocks and it rolls, and it’s not an embarrassment.
Oh yeah, one last thing. Remember that comment I made years ago about boosting Samantha’s act? Let’s just say that Ned’s Atomic Dustbin makes a very poor example of the seeds of the “Madchester” scene being sown. No matter. I’d always enjoyed the Stone Roses but never liked—but it would have been smarter to cite—the Smiths anyway.
Okay. Show’s over. You can quit throwing beer cans now.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but be warned. This is more or less a cult film about a cult band, at least outside of Britain. Control is one for the fans, but it’s also a good introduction to the band. It’s there if you want it.
- “So you really looking for a singer then?”
- 24 Hour Party People had better ringers for JD, but these guys act a tad better.
- On the contract scene: yes, they all signed in blood, that’s on the record. But guitarist Bernie Sumner (nee Dicken) went by Bernard Albrecht during his tenure with JD. Right, commence tossing your beer cans this way again.
- “Up the continental with the rental.” The endless drudgery of being on the road; there’s no real glamour here.
- Peter Hook and Stephen Morris are one of the most underrated rhythm sections in pop. They’re up there with Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, Mark Sandman and Billy Conway of Morphine and McCartney and Ringo, for that matter.
- “I told her.” Ugly.
- Is that why the prophetic “Auto-Suggestion” is such a long track?
- “I’ve taken my pills.”
- As a gateway, I recommend JD’s Unknown Pleasures album, their compilation Substance: 1977-1980, New Order’s Substance: 1987 and Low-Life. Y’know, if you’re curious.
Start rubbernecking. Witness Los Angelenos of all stripes Crash in on each other’s lives.