A quick word in support of the long-awaited Joy Divsion biopic Control, as I was lucky enough to attend a press screening for it earlier today down at the Broadway Cinema, in advance of its “gala screening” this evening.
Joy Division might have been a Manchester band, but there’s a strong Nottingham link to the movie; lead actress Samantha Morton was born and bred here, a large chunk of the funding came from the East Midlands, and most of the film was shot in the city. The concert scenes were filmed inside the Ballroom of the Marcus Garvey Centre, with crowd extras recruited from the message boards of LeftLion magazine; the Derby Road council flats behind the Savoy Cinema are easily recognisable; and the supposedly Mancunian kids in the opening scene have suspiciously local accents.
The film marks the directorial debut of rock photographer Anton Corbijn, perhaps best known for his work with U2 and Depeche Mode, who also worked with Joy Division in the late 1970s, helping to define their oh-God-I-hate-using-this-word iconic (bleurgh) image. Not surprsingly, the visual aesthetic is closely aligned with Corbijn’s signature style, all monochrome austerity and pared down moodiness. As such, it’s completely in line with the band’s existing iconography – almost to the degree of being an extension of their brand, were I minded to be cynical.
Which, to my relief, and despite niggling early doubts (with every shot exquisitely composed, was the art direction in danger of drowning in its own sumptuous “perfection”?), I’m not. For the tightly controlled visual aesthetic actually serves to preserve the band’s mystique, even as the drama seeks to examine the circumstances which led to singer Ian Curtis’s suicide, aged 23, in May 1980. Or, as I put it on Twitter earlier today, on my way back from the cinema, the film “illuminates the story without puncturing the legend”. It’s a tricky line to walk, and some slightly clunky initial wobbles notwithstanding (or maybe it’s simply impossible not to giggle at the first sight of the earnest young actors playing Barney and Hooky, and at the sight of “Tony Wilson” in a daft wig), the balance is admirably struck.
(Thus, to give one example, you gain an almost literal insight as to how Curtis’s emotional state inspired the lyrics of Love Will Tear Us Apart, without running the risk of permanently devaluing the personal experience that you might get from the song.)
Ah yes: Tony Wilson, whose serious illness was well known amongst the cast and crew, and whose death less than two months ago casts an extra shadow over what was already a distinctly murky drama. His character provides a couple of the film’s rare comedic moments – the lack of which was also noted, with some measure of disappointment, by Curtis’s widow Deborah (darned if I can find the source, but this article by their now grown-up daughter Natalie provides some fascinating background). Control thus becomes something of a dual memorial, as well as making some of the links between Ian Curtis’s and Kurt Cobain’s respective states of suicidal despair all the more explicit (I’m thinking of one concert scene in particular, which shows Curtis no longer able to control the widening gap between what his audience expects and what he is capable of providing).
Highly recommended. Go see.