The fact that I’m writing about this movie says a few things: first that I’m pretty out of touch since the movie was released at Cannes in 2007; second that at my age I still listen to and like Joy Division. I’m not embarrassed by either of these facts.
For those who don’t know Joy Division was a band that became quite successful in the UK in the late 1970s. On the eve of their 1980 tour in the US Curtis hung himself in the kitchen of his flat. After his death the band later reformed and became New Order which went on to achieve a level of fame and success that no doubt would have troubled Curtis. Nonetheless Joy Division became a prominent band in modern rock, influencing contemporaries like U2 and The Cure (Robert Smith dedicated “Primary” to Curtis) as well as later bands like Nine Inch Nails (who covered Joy Division’s “Dead Souls”) and The Killers, who covered the Joy Division song “Shadowplay.”
Control the movie will appeal to Joy Division, New Order fans – but I doubt it will work for anyone unfamiliar with the music or Ian Curtis’s persona. The movie is shot in black & white which fits the subject well, as anyone familiar with the music will attest. The cinematography is excellent, but I think the movie would have benefited from tighter editing. At least 20 mins of the 2 hour 3 minute long movie could have hit the editing room floor thereby preventing a few dragged out scenes that the movie could have done without.
Where this music truly shined was the acting; Sam Riley channels Ian Curtis in a way that I haven’t seen since Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison (an influence of Curtis’s by the way) in the 1991 Oliver Stone film. The rest of Joy Division – Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris – played by Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, and Harry Treadaway – are played so convincingly that it’s hard for all but the most die-hard Joy Division fans to realize that the four actors playing Joy Division actually played and sang the Joy Division songs in the movie. While I missed Joy Division due to age and geography, I have seen video of the band, and Riley’s portrayal of Curtis is spot on. The spastic dancing, the hiding behind the microphone, the soul-penetrating icy stares – all done perfectly by Riley. Add the fact that the band does not lip synch any of their songs almost sent me to my collection once or twice to compare the songs in the movie to the songs on CD.
Ian Curtis may not be as well known as James Dean, Jim Morrison and more recently Heath Ledger, but his death at the age of 23 just before his band was on the brink of success in the United States has created a similar legacy to those stars who were cut down before their prime. The movie accurately portrays him as an enigmatic figure who viewed his talent as a burden, one that ultimately consumed him.
As someone deep into middle age I recognize such talent as a siren song and know that Talent and its attendant Muses comes in other, less lethal, varieties. Better for Curtis to have lived a quiet life with his wife and daughter in the English countryside like Sting than to have ended his brief life prematurely. Would Joy Division have made it in the USA had Curtis lived? Would the band have changed modern music as much as it has already if Curtis had lived? No one knows for sure, but I wish that Ian Curtis would have at least tried.