Sunday, September 09, 2007

Toronto International Film Festival Journal - Part Three - The Battle of Ian Curtis

CONTROL (Anton Corbijn, 2007, UK) & JOY DIVISION (Grant Gee, 2006, UK)

1991 – Two competing Robin Hood movies (20th Century Fox shows theirs on television rather than releasing theatrically)
1997 – Two volcano films explode on screen
1998 – Two astral body adventure films (comet / asteroid) collide with U.S. theaters
2007 – Two films about short-lived Manchester band, Joy Division, cause a stir on the festival circuit.

A reviewer far cleverer than I would put together a summary of Anton Corbijn’s biopic of Joy Division front man, Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), through a lyrical pastiche. They might talk about Curtis’s isolation and that, like too many other young rock stars flitting around the lime light, that it was actually love that tore him apart. Between his young bride, Deborah (Samantha Morton), and Belgian fan Annik Honore (Alexandria Maria Lara), he was torn between two lovers and feeling like a fool. No, wait… that’d be using Mary Macgregor. Better, between his torrid lovelife and epilepsy drug regimen, it felt as though he’d lost control. But a review like that would definitely lack substance and a leader of men, such as I, am above that.

Shot in breathtaking black and white (and looking like true b&w stock, not desaturated color), CONTROL tells the story of Ian Curtis, the lanky lead singer. With their driving bass, bombastic drums, jangling guitar, and deep-throated vocals, Joy Division created a unique sound that put them on the music map of the late ‘70s / early ‘80s. Called “art rock” by some, the band was truly a working class act (mostly) from Macclesfield, England. Though they only released two full-length LPs, the impact of Joy Division can’t be underestimated. And, their legend was sadly enhanced by the tragic end of Curtis on the eve of what could have been the band’s biggest moment; their U.S. debut.

Based on Deborah Curtis’s memoir of her marriage, Touching from a Distance, Corbijn’s film focuses primarily on Curtis, his lovelife and his band, in that order. Riley and Morton give terrific performances (Morton isn’t afraid to sport an ever-expanding bottom throughout the film) with Riley and his Joy Division co-stars really rip it up as they actually sing and play their instruments. The lack of lip-synching (and great production values) helps telegraph the vitality of Joy Division’s music. Though the timeline sometimes gets a little confusing (wait, how many months later is this?), the subject matter is handled expertly. This leads to a rather strange predicament.

Too often you’ll find me kvetching about biopics. AUTOFOCUS, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, THE MAN IN THE MOON—all of these films left me shaking my fist and crying out, “Why couldn’t I just see a decent documentary instead?” (The only exception to this was most likely ED WOOD). This time, my cries were heeded and I was able to see Grant Gee’s documentary, JOY DIVISION. Wouldn’t you know, I find myself a bigger fan of the biopic than the documentary.

Despite the participation of ex-members of Joy Division, their management, and so on, Gee’s film felt very much as if it were on the outside looking in while CONTROL felt like it had the inside track. Several factors contribute to this prima facie feel; the lack of participation by Deborah Curtis and the over reliance on various “tricks” meant to bring more “life” to the film that really deadened it instead. For example, there is a series of photographs of “places that no longer exist.” These pictures show what currently occupies the real estate of past significant landmarks (clubs, record companies, etc). These play into Gee’s mishandled thesis that Joy Division somehow managed to revitalize Manchester (nothing spurs commercial development like a music scene). Likewise, the photographs are much like Gee’s work; they show the façade but never get inside of the world of Joy Division.

On the plus side, JOY DIVISION sports a good deal of historical footage of the band (some of it fascinating as a history of cheesy video effects). Comparing these to the reenactments of the same performances in CONTROL shows how much respect Corbijn had for his original source material. Luckily, too, the interviews with surviving friends and bandmates were free of the self-congratulatory ego that too many aging pop stars suffer from. These flights of addle-brained music history come courtesy of pop historians who pine about how ground-breaking the band was and how their music encapsulated Manchester and blah, blah, blah. JOY DIVISION is plagued by this cockamamie pop reviewer blather (prose that even Rolling Stone would be too embarrassed to publish). This kind of shite “rock journalism” sucks the soul out of JOY DIVISION and leaves a bitter, pretentious aftertaste. Unbelievably (to me), the Corbijn biopic wins this film battle hands down.

The most striking sequence from THE CROW was always the scene set to Nine Inch Nails's cover of Joy Division's "Dead Souls." This is a fanmade video for the same song using clips from the film (I forgot that Lord Nykon was in this). Here's to you, T-Bird!


Anonymous said...

Interesting that the actors in Control playing Joy Division actually sing and play their own instruments. The only other movie I can think of that did this was The Buddy Holly Story. Charles Martin Smith on drums!

Ian Curtis (as a character) also shows up in 24 Hour Party People.

Which is better,Torn Between Two Lovers or Love Will Tear Us Apart? I'll go with Tear Us Apart, but it's close!

Mike White said...

Funny coincidence -- Sam Riley is in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE -- or was, but ended up on the cutting room floor. He played the lead singer from The Fall.

In CONTROL there's a line from the Rob Gretton character (brilliant) to Curtis after an epilepsy attack: "It could be worse, you could be the lead singer in The Fall.

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