Control – The Life, Death and Legacy of Ian Curtis

Watched the movie Control. This movie is based on the book by Deborah Curtis “Touching From a Distance,” about her life with Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.

Control Movie Poster

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.

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  1. Pj:

    Hey Scott – I recently watched “Control” as well and also enjoyed it very much (and you know how much of a Joy Division/New Order fan I was back in the day). I think that if you watch this film along with “24 Hour Party People,” you can probably get a good sense of the times. Both films cover much of the same subject matter, but approach it from wildly different points of view. Since life is often the juggling of contradictory feelings, emotions and perceptions, the reality of that period was probably exciting, anxious, euphoric and depressing – all at the same time.

    Also worth noting are the performances by two of my favorite actresses: the brilliant Samantha Morton as Curtis’ wife and Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik Honore (who later went on to work with Factory Benelux).

    I have also begun to dig up my old Joy Division and New Order records and find them just as moving and interesting as ever. Although, my interest in New Order sort of dropped off after “Low Life,” their music is very much a soundtrack of my high school days.

    p.s. – Have you ever thought about posting some of your old cassette tape playlists?

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    I was thinking about you during the movie. Glad you commented.
    The Wife & I have been listening to Joy Division today and I currently have “She’s Lost Control” stuck in my head. After transitioning to CDs in the early 90’s I never got around to replacing all the Joy Division on vinyl. All I have left is the 7” Love Will Tear Us Apart I picked up at Streetside Records near your house – so I’m looking to add to my collection (I did a similar thing after seeing the Cure back in May.)

    I was also thinking about bands who lost their frontmen, and how things worked out. Nirvana lost Kurt Cobain and went on to achieve great success as the Foo Fighters. Then again Blind Melon lost their lead and were never seen again.

    I think New Order’s success after Curtis’s death says much about the talent of the remaining bandmembers, and suggests that had Curtis lived the future would have been quite bright for the band.

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