Saturday, January 17, 2009


This past week I watched two films about the fortunes of the band that began life as Warsaw, changed to Joy Division, then, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, became New Order. Anton Corbijn's Control (2007), based on a memoir by Curtis' wife, Deborah, hews to the biopic vein of "early life" (in this case, when Curtis and Debbie first meet) to struggling early years, to rise to fame, and, in this case, to untimely demise. What's different in Curtis' case is that the time from first meeting to death is about seven years. People take longer to get through high school and college. Joy Division (2007), the documentary by Grant Gee, covers a bit of the same ground but in round robin reminiscences by some of the principle figures in the Joy Division story: the three remaining band members, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Manchester pop authority Tony Wilson, Terry Mason, an early manager, Annik Honore, the Belgian girlfriend, that, according to Control, created the main tension in the Curtis marriage, and numerous others. There are some amusing overlaps -- as when Terry admits he didn't have a phone, which made it difficult to arrange gigs for the band, while Rob Gretton, the fast-talking man with a plan who takes over the job from Terry, "had access to a phone." Sure enough, in Control, Rob dismisses Terry as someone who probably doesn't have a phone, and we get to see Rob answering the pay phone in the hall of the building he lives in. Such are the humble beginnings.

Both films are fairly short on pretension, which is a strength. For whatever Joy Division is or was, they aren't exactly a household name, nor have they yet proven themselves to be the kind of durable reference point for everyone coming of nihilistic age at a certain moment -- as for instance The Velvet Underground, or The Sex Pistols, or Nirvana were in their respective days. Joy Division did concoct a novel sound that rides the 'new wave' that combines a certain love for glam -- Bowie, Roxy Music get soundtrack time in Control -- with a Sex Pistols-inspired punk ethos. It's a heady sound and, as New Order, becomes brighter, crisper and more dance-friendly. But there's no denying there's an aura about Joy Division that both these films are in the business of perpetuating, fixing upon Curtis as the fallen figurehead. Kinda the Syd Barrett in the mix.

But the case that sticks best is that Joy Division was the quintessential Manchester band, and when their fortunes were taking them far afield -- first to Europe, then to America -- the pressure was too much for the fragile psyche of Ian Curtis. As lead singer/front man, he felt the strain of trying to market worldwide the DIY ethos of a crowd of Manchester mates. One of the surprising admissions in the documentary is that Curtis' erstwhile band mates never paid much attention to what the guy was singing about. The fact that Curtis' "vision" is unremittingly bleak and terminally depressed never seems to have dawned on these savants. Or at least that's the way they see it now, well-fĂȘted as they are in middle-age. One of the statements I liked best came from one of the band's entourage who says they "never talked to each other" -- and it's not an indictment of these guys in particular, it's a simple statement of fact: as twentysomething new wave rockers trying to foster their own idiosyncratic grasp of cool, the last thing anyone would do, post-punk, is get all emo about things.

Temperament is one thing that separates the suicide of Curtis from the suicide of Kurt Cobain: Cobain was always way more ironic, humorous, and -- at a concert such as Unplugged in New York (1994) -- laidback than Curtis ever seemed to be. Curtis -- in the footage in the documentary, and as recreated to great effect by Sam Riley in Control -- seems driven by a daemon or maybe even a demon. Rather than the old chestnut "he died for rock'n'roll,' Control seems to suggest he died to escape rock'n'roll -- or maybe it was to escape his wife and girlfriend. Both, as depicted in the film, are kinda downers each in her own way, in the sense that both have emotional claims on Curtis that he seems not able to divest himself of. Sure, we can all relate: when he's with one, he'd rather be done with the other one; or, when he's with one, he'd rather be back with the other one. What's a fledgling rock star to do? Whatever was riding the real Curtis, his fictional version just seems intensely ineffectual.

Control is beautifully photographed, and the chemistry of the band and its entourage is made entertaining stuff, with Curtis's epileptic seizures and medications filling the dramatic role of the inevitable drug addiction period in the typical music biopic. Since Control is based on Deborah Curtis' book, it's surprising that, as played with winsome, girl-next-door good intentions by Samantha Morton, her character in the movie comes across as the inevitable ball-and-chain. Certainly we don't see much evidence of her really digging the band's sound and Curtis' put-me-out-of-my-misery lyrics. Annik, in Control, seems nothing more than the starry-eyed believer who finds the interplay of the man and his persona irresistible. In the documentary, Annik speaks intensely about Curtis, but with what seems an outsider's view. In other words, the feeling at the end of Control and Joy Division, is that the people who knew Curtis best didn't know him much at all.

That leaves the music, of course. As someone not that much younger than the principles of these stories, I can attest to the fact that Joy Division, more than the Sex Pistols, for me, caught something of the bleakness of the late '70s to early '80s malaise. And that, with an anthemic song like "Love Will Tear Us Apart," they said -- in a very catchy way -- what a losing battle that whole "committed relationship" number is. But I didn't hear JD till after New Order was up and running and so sought out the songs by JD that were closest to the songs I liked on Power, Corruption, and Lies (1983). Curtis, vocally, is too much of a one trick pony, and their handful of great songs makes laughable Peter Hook's assertion that, if Curtis hadn't died, JD would've gone on to do what U2 did. Yeah, right. The idea of the Curtis-led band becoming as popular as New Order is enough of a stretch -- to become U2-like there would have to have been some major remake-remodeling going on via the U.S. tour that Curtis hung himself literally on the eve of. But, again, since the band never listened much to what Curtis was singing, maybe they actually believe that the masses who rallied to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or swayed to "With or Without You" would jump for joy to songs like "Decades":

Weary inside, now our heart's lost forever,
Can't replace the fear, or the thrill of the chase,
Each ritual showed up the door for our wanderings,
Open then shut, then slammed in our face.
--Joy Division, "Decades" (1980)

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