Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division Biopic Touches From A Distance

andybeta | October 5, 2007 1:01 am
Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he watches the Anton Corbijn-directed Control, which opens in select cities on Wednesday:

Nothing on the posters and lobby cards for renowned photographer Anton Corbijn’s directorial debut Control tips you off about the movie’s central premise. It’s not subtitled “Joy Division: The Movie” or “The Ian Curtis Story,” much less addled with inanities like “Would You Sacrifice Everything You Love to Follow Your Dreams?” or “Based on a True Story,” and in a way none of those tags, while all basically true, apply here. Control is essentially a high-wire act. In presenting a film about a beloved cult act and its messianic frontman, were a single inane detail left out of the story it might make its disciples wail, yet Corbijn expertly pulls it off, alluding to record-collector minutiae–but never quite wallowing in it–while crafting a story engaging enough so as to draw in initiates and indoctrinate them.

Corbijn has built a multi-decade career as both top-tier “rock photographer” (he has shot U2 since the beginning) and “rock video director” (for the likes of Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Roxette, At the Drive-In, etc.), yet both careers stem from a single event: hearing the music of Joy Division. The siren song of Unknown Pleasures led Corbijn to abandon Holland for England. He even shot his idols, capturing the doomed group’s members with their backs turned in a tube station. And while the film bears little of Corbijn’s well-worn video tropes (Christian crosses, lip-synching fowl) it does bear his instantly recognizable photographic style: a granular yet sumptuous black and white, expertly framed.

Whereas a similar tale of JD is enfolded into the freewheeling 24 Hour Party People, the story here is more austere, reverential. Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s intoxicating grisaille is both enveloping and consumptive, somehow both warm and clammy, with Corbijn’s particular brand of shadowplay in full effect throughout the film’s duration. The Macclesfield rendered on screen is miserable indeed, as if under a fine soot, to where that grit becomes part of the celluloid itself. The film presents Ian Curtis (played by Sam Riley, who incidentally played Mark E. Smith in Party People) in the removed manner of a kitchen-sink drama, as a dead-end youth bursting with inchoate energy and the attendant existential dread that accompanies it. He scratches IAN into his desktop, then adds another line, so that it becomes IAM.

“Existence, well…what does it matter?” he asks, forlornly dragging on a smoke in his skivvies and emulating the drag of glam rock. Curtis rears himself on a steady diet of Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and David Bowie, along with Wordsworth, Roxy Music, and assorted pharmaceuticals, their kicks foreshadowing the anti-seizure meds he’s soon forced to ingest to stave off his epileptic fits. The film encapsulates that sacrosanct act of teen listening, the solace found when simply brooding, smoking, daydreaming.

Lord knows how it mirrors that own hopeless time of my life, when back in high school I too became enthralled with Joy Division. But their discography occupies an obscure corner of my life now. Quite honestly, listening to Unknown Pleasures or Closer for, uh, pleasure feels nigh-on impossible and I honestly can’t think of any other music that can mire me in such a despondent, inconsolable pall as the second side of Closer. It’s not just mentally trying, but physically burdensome, the sound of Curtis’s phantasmal voice fully enacting that awful weight on his shoulders come closing song “Decades.”

Throughout Control, the soundtrack is hushed, cropping up only when music naturally occurs, through the tinny speakers of shite record players (with attendant shots of Curtis-beloved platters like Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie’s Aladdin Sane) or else deafening in live settings, Joy Division pistoning and hissing in raw power. Perhaps moved by such “celluloid pictures of living,” I only realized after the lights went up–and right before the Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay” (replete with Brandon Flowers’ dead-on impersonation of Ian Curtis Glenn Danzig) began to blare over the credits– that I had missed occurrences of Roxy Music’s “2HB” and Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight,” both of which appear on the soundtrack, alongside incidental music from New Order, John Cooper Clarke reading “Evidently Chickentown,” and forgotten Dutch prog group Supersister. The soundtrack’s inclusion of movie dialogue is a headscratcher, though: must we hear the band calling up its manager?

Having witnessed Joy Division and countless other punk and post-punk acts of the era, Corbijn proves especially adept at rendering the live beast on the screen. Scenes of Joy Division in action have all the sweat, crackling electricity, involuntary twitches, and claustrophobia of underground rock shows from any era. He captures just how Ian Curtis combusts, changing from withdrawn and soft-spoken to the spasmodic baritone that would voice the confounding quandaries of existence for generations of forlorn teens.

There’s a remove inherent in the Ian Curtis story though (as with the unanswered questions of any suicide, really). The film draws on Touching From a Distance, the book by widow Deborah Curtis, yet emphasizes the other woman, Belgian journalist Annik Honoré (all but unmentioned in the book). Neither woman though seems to know much about the man, nor do we. We in the audience are left to occupy a position similar to that of Honoré, wedged amid the fans, gazing up admirably at this figure, enthralled yet forever riddled by the slim but inscrutable music that Ian Curtis continues to haunt.