Thursday, May 15, 2008
Control - Dir. Anton Corbijn
3 ½ out of 4 Stars.
“Control,” Anton Corbijn’s much talked about biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, is only playing at one theater in L.A. (at the early date on which I saw it, ed.). The first time I tried to see it, twenty minutes before show time, a line snaked around two blocks of the movie house—Nu Art Cinema—and I gave up before even trying to enter the box office. This time I came two hours before the show to ensure a ticket, and returned twenty minutes before the show to stand behind fifty more people in line. This is probably one of the most anticipated movies playing in this town right now (was, in October 2007). Ian Curtis and Joy Division and Factory Records and Tony Wilson and Manchester and the legendary Sex Pistols show and all the rest from the post-punk mythology dated 1977 to 1980 have been given their proper documentation and celebration in the iconic 24 Hour Party People in 2002. Five years later, the same material, with an emphasis on the Joy Division side of things, springs up, and while it cannot claim to cast as wide a net as its predecessor, in time it will coast alongside it as the two most essential movies made about the period.
To compare it to Last Days, Gus van Sant’s “fictional exploration” of Kurt Cobain’s demise, would be instructional. In fact, these two films taken together demonstrate the division between success and failure in the musical biopic genre, and in this case, the incredibly influential musician who killed themselves genre. First of all, the film must reflect the attitude of its subject and his music. Last Days was more interested in the depressing side of Kurt Cobain—the drug-addled, lazy, moping, messy house, hangers-on-housing, meditative, anti-social, tortured artist. This was one side of the persona, but not the one that should be documented, which apparently it will be now that Courtney Love wants one to be made. But no multiple versions of Ian Curtis’s life need appear: Control is not going to disappoint anyone.
The enormous pressure of the film rests on Sam Riley’s shoulders. Riley’s most notable film role previous to this was playing Mark E. Smith in 24 Hour Party People. While he couldn’t have had more than a line or two in that film, his performance here is designed to be scrutinized. For two hours, Riley is Curtis, and is only off-screen for brief moments throughout the film. This is a huge task, and knowing how many admirers there are of Joy Division’s music, a lot of criticism could be leveled at the attempt. There may be one or two moments that fans may scoff at, thinking Ian Curtis would never act like that (like crying in the middle of sex or something), but overwhelmingly the performance is incredibly nuanced and believable and never feels awkward when going to its extremes. There will be no Oscar for Riley knowing the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but he is just as deserving of recognition as Jamie Foxx or Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon. Michael Pitt was rather unlovable in Last Days, but Sam Riley legitimately and warmly humanizes Ian Curtis.
Worth noting especially is the role of music in this film. This is the one quality in which it outshines 24 Hour Party People. That film utilized classic songs from the era brilliantly into its catalog of bands, but they were always the same versions you would hear on the records themselves. Control should also be nominated for Best Song (“Love Will Tear Us Apart” being the obvious choice), but probably won’t. What sets this music biopic apart from others is that the music is recreated by the actors themselves. Ray used lip-synching, and while Walk the Line used real singing, Control uses a real band playing. I can’t be sure whether The Doors did that or not, but I’m not sure—I think Val Kilmer did do his own singing though. Sam Riley does an admirable job of recreating Curtis’s doomed baritone, and the actors who play Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris (James Anthony Pearson, Joe Anderson, and Harry Treadaway) should all tour together because their Joy Division cover movie soundtrack is so spot-on. Their acting performances are underutilized—the emphasis of this film is clearly on Curtis—but they make a movie about New Order seem like not such a bad idea.
The plot of the film should be predictable to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Joy Division legend: Ian Curtis starts becoming obsessed with Bowie as a teen, goes to first Sex Pistols show in Manchester with future Warsaw/Joy Division bandmates, calls Tony Wilson the c-word, gets signed to Factory Records, experiences epileptic seizures while playing live, records two albums with Martin Hannett, becomes popular, gets ready to tour America, listens to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and hangs himself. This is all pretty much documented in 24 Hour Party People, and on many points the two films are incredibly similar in their depictions and sometimes even in their dialogue. Craig Parkinson must have studied Steve Coogan’s performance because his Tony Wilson is almost exactly the same, albeit with far less relevance in the story. Don’t expect many new revelations on the history of the band—just expect a quality recreation of the Joy Division experience by some very talented actors and the equivalent of a greatest hits session—including “She’s Lost Control,” “Transmission,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Digital,” “New Dawn Fades,” “Isolation,” “Dead Souls,” and several others as well.
Does the film shed light on why Curtis committed suicide? Yes, another point on which it differs from Last Days, and another point on which it should be taken as a model. The epilepsy is directly and sometimes jarringly displayed. Curtis’s troubled relationship with wife Debbie (Samantha Morton in the film’s other Oscar-worthy performance) is given nearly as much focus as the music of the band. This is only point on which I would say the film weakens. It is a slow and contemplative film—it is black and white, and certainly a work of art in terms of its photographic beauty—but the story only becomes boring when centering on what is at the end a rather mundane and common domestic dispute. Note: it is almost impossible to think Ian Curtis is not an asshole after seeing this movie. He is given the “dressing down,” as it were. The plot is positively TV-movie-of-the-week quality at certain points, but the consequences following up these points, and the performances driving them are nevertheless compelling. At the end of the day you don’t want to blame anyone for anything that happens, the only mistake that anybody can be said to have made is that they made a commitment when they were probably too young to know what they were doing. It is a shame that things had to end the way they did, but few can match the body of work that Curtis left behind, and for dying as young as he did, few exert a stronger influence, shorn of new material, 27 years and counting.