A joyless depiction of the post-punk era

Anton Corbijn’s Control looks good. But it fails to capture the heart and soul of Joy Division, and the bleak-but-exciting era that forged them.

Neil Davenport

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Long before its cinema release, Control, Anton Corbijn’s biopic on seminal post-punk band Joy Division, was being feverishly anticipated and talked up by fortysomething hacks.

That is understandable, of course. Although they left behind a very slim back catalogue, Joy Division’s stentorian intensity has engraved itself into the collective consciousness of music heads both young and not-so-young. Their most recognisable song, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, is now on a par with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in the British classic stakes. Add to that the debris of human interest that surrounds lead singer Ian Curtis’s drug problems, failed marriage, depression, illness and shocking suicide in 1980 – at the age of 23, just as Joy Division were becoming big – and the life and times of this north-west English rock band have become increasingly potent in recent years.

And yet, such is the deafening hyperbole and goggle-eyed myth-making surrounding Joy Division that any biopic would be well advised to inject some balance and restraint. To his credit, Dutch rock-photographer-turned-film-director Anton Corbijn brings a steady hand to what could have been an overheated story. The trouble is that when careful restraint tips over into calculated reverence – as it does often in Control – you are left with no real insights into what made Joy Division, or the era they soundtracked, seem so wracked and remarkable.

Control looks very beautiful, though that shouldn’t surprise anyone: Corbijn has a considerable pedigree as a moody black-and-white photographer. In the 1980s, he made his name with grainy photographs of Joy Division, U2 and Depeche Mode. With Control, he seems to draw on the flat-and-functional clarity of the British Free Cinema documentaries of the 1950s. And as a device designed to capture the mundane ordinariness of Ian Curtis’s school, work and domestic life, this style is evocative and gently absorbing. Rather than giving us the usual portrayal of working-class family homes as nightmarish scream-and-shout hellholes, Corbijn offers glimpses into the more recognisable stuff of box-bedroom boredom, mooching around municipal parks, and endless cups of sugary tea.

This deliberately non-dramatic portrayal also usefully contrasts Curtis’s humdrum domestic life with the high-octane excitement he achieved on stage as Joy Division’s frontman. The film captures how Curtis sought to escape matrimonial monogamy in Macclesfield (he married Deborah when he was just 19) by starting an affair with a glamorous European journalist, Annik Honore. As Control is based on Deborah Curtis’s memoirs, Touching From A Distance, it is particularly strong on the push-and-pull tensions of their crumbling marriage and Ian’s infidelities. In the role of the wounded but instinctually supportive Deborah, Samantha Morton single-handedly steers Control away from rock biopic banalities and cements her reputation as an actress of extraordinary range and power. And newcomer Sam Riley excels as Ian Curtis, capturing his graveyard baritone and zoned-out introspective quirks with understated ease. Likewise, the portrayals of Joy Division members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, as well as belligerent manager Rob Gretton, are almost comically spot on.

And yet, no amount of acting guile can prevent Control from being a little too… stagey. At times, the dialogue is too measured to be convincing, the sets too stylised to be authentic, and the mood too one-paced to capture the chaos and turbulence of the period. These notable cracks grow ever wider during the scenes showing Joy Division gigs. Although the cast do a serviceable job of recreating the band’s questing, pulverising sound, it just doesn’t have the look, feel and smell of a gig circa the late 1970s. Where are the billowing clouds of cigarette smoke? Where’s the dank and dark grime that came with playing in derelict concert halls? Above all, where’s the boot-in-the-groin aggro that was so often a feature of gigs during that period?

Okay, Control does focus on a notorious Joy Division gig that descended into a riot after Curtis refused to sing – but a considerable number of post-punk gigs were aggressive, violent and teetering on the brink of a riot. In Control, the fact that both Joy Division, and later New Order, frequently appeared onstage as late as possible in order to crank up crowd hostility is glossed over. Too often, the crowd and atmosphere in Control seems far too well-behaved.

The film also ignores the social context in which Curtis and Joy Division emerged. No doubt Corbijn wanted to concentrate on Ian Curtis – The Man – and indeed he has been praised for doing that. But at times, the studio sets and sluggish pace means the film could be a portrayal of the northwest of England anytime between, say, 1959 and 1979. In truth 1980, the year Curtis committed suicide, was actually as bleak and cold as the hole in the number ‘0’. The full onslaught of the New Right agenda, led by Thatcher, was becoming self-evident. This was the year that unemployment hit two million for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Nuclear war felt inevitable. We were all going to die – or so many people believed. In such a context, ramalama punk pop sounded increasingly flimsy and threadbare. All of a sudden, former punk bands evolved into something far more intense and foreboding, bleak and brittle, twisted and metallic: a soundtrack for the oncoming economic and social depression.

Post-punk music wasn’t all about blanked-out resignation, however. This dark era in modern British history also evoked a wide-eyed combativeness amongst young people getting into the music business. Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, Josef K and the Gang of Four – to name a few – all dovetailed with the prevailing social climate: they were uptight, tense, eyes-on-stalks, borderline volatile. With the glorious benefit of hindsight, punk’s teenage tantrum in 1976 was a lashing out at the postwar consensus, a desire to break the mould of the cosy conformity that seemed to last from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s.

Although it was limited by a kind of DIY individualism (which ironically mirrored Thatcher’s own project), the punkish desire to smash the postwar consensus created a thirst for experimentation, for radical change; there was a palpable sense that everything was up for grabs. This aspiration for something more substantial than what British society in general, and working-class life in particular, had to offer proved to be cataclysmic. Such a clamouring for artistic and political experimentation meant that post-punk bands also chimed with painters, filmmakers, poets, revolutionaries and performance artists. Rather than merely referencing other bands, most post-punk musicians ransacked twentieth-century modernist art and literature. It’s hard to imagine, say, Razorlight doing the same today. As author Simon Reynolds said about the Manchester musicians of the early 1980s, many were ‘working-class intellectuals; bookworms, really, making good use of their library cards, devouring everything from Burroughs and Dick to Yeats and Camus’.

Aside from a cursory camera glance at Curtis’s bookshelf, Control ignores the fact that Joy Division, like other bands of the period, were a bunch of secret autodidacts and aesthetes. Instead, Corbijn’s explanation for Joy Division’s brilliance seems to spring from bluff northern wit, rather than the band’s aspiration to reach the high watermarks of modernist culture. You’d never know it from watching Control, but many post-punk bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed revved up with a raging desire to escape the expectations and limitations of an exhausted, battered, post-imperial society. Standing on and building on the shoulders of yesterday’s intellectual giants seemed the best route out of the impasse in their everyday lives, and British life in general.

Ian and Deborah Curtis’s daughter, Nathalie, recently said she is disappointed that so few bands play with the same style and intelligence as Joy Division. Others feel the same. It seems that barely a weekend goes by without BBC4 running yet another documentary on Factory Records (the company managed by the late Tony Wilson which released Joy Division’s first album), punk and post-punk, New York hip-hop, left-wing radicalism, feminism and the other half-forgotten battles of the early 1980s. No doubt TV producers in their early forties are keen to relive their youths (though thankfully without irony) – but underneath all of this nostalgia for the punk and post-punk eras, there seems to be a forlorn realisation that, in the 20 years since then, the substance in British politics, art and culture has gone the same way as the mining industry.

In Control, you won’t see any of this. With too much focus on the prosaic miniatures of Curtis’s life, the film unfortunately fails to capture the real heart and soul of Joy Division, and the era that forged them.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. He is speaking at the session Teach the world to sing at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

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