Anton Corbijn was the obvious choice to make a movie about Ian Curtis. The Holland-born photographer moved to Manchester after hearing Joy Division‘s Unknown Pleasures, and his photo of the band, taken from behind in a Tube station, is the iconic image of the group. (He also directed the posthumous, pretentious, and silly video for "Atmosphere").
Was he the right choice? Debatable, but probably. In the press notes for Control, he repeatedly complains about being stigmatized as a "rock photographer" and that he had no desire to make a music-related film as his first feature. He agreed to make it once he realized Control would be made with him or without him and he preferred not to have someone else mess it up. While you can’t tell Ian Curtis’ story without telling some of Joy Division’s story, Control is definitely not about the inner-workings of one of post-punk’s most influential bands. For that, or at least more than you get here, rent Michael Winterbottom’s superb 24 Hour Party People.
Corbijn does a good job of fleshing out the enigma (played by newcomer Sam Riley), whom most of us only know through his bleak lyrics, impassioned vocals, photos and performances caught on video. As much as he can. It seems apparent that nobody really knew the introverted singer, not his bandmates, not Tony Wilson, not Corbijn, not even his widow Deborah, on whose book, Touching from a Distance, the movie is based. Curtis is not portrayed as a brooding sourpuss stereotype. This is someone who laughed, had fun, worked at the Job Centre by day and was in a band at night. A guy who enjoyed being in a band… at least until his epilepsy got worse and was forced to take a variety of medications to control his seizures, drugs that significantly altered his mood.
Problem is, Corbijn doesn’t do much speculating as to why Curtis did it, so what we’re left with is a bit dramatically thin. Unlike the "Atmosphere" video, he thankfully doesn’t put Curtis on a pedestal. The man was also no saint, neglecting his wife and infant daughter, sneaking out of the house to go on tour,
leaving for weeks without calling or letting her know where he was. He also carried on
an affair with a Belgian fanzine writer, Annik Honoré, for the last two
years of his life.
Riley, in the crucial role, does a fine job as Curtis. He also can sing like him. Actually, one of the most effective parts of the film is that the people hired to play Curtis, Steven Morris, Bernard Sumner, and Peter hook, are actually playing in the perfomance scenes. And they’re great, they’ve got it down. Except… the one area where Riley disappoints is his dancing. If you’ve ever seen footage of Curtis onstage, it’s like he’s in a trance, an out of body experience. To name another Mancunian, Riley’s dancing is more like Bez.
Samantha Morton, the only marquee name here, brings some emotional heft as Deborah Curtis — the scene where she discovers Curtis’ body is absolutely heartbreaking. But it’s a supporting role in this scattershot film that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. As you’d expect from Corbijn, Control is gorgeous to look at, with his signature super-high-contrast black and white photography that changes to blue tint and then sepia as the film progresses. He gets the period details right (including an appearance by the real John Cooper-Clarke, performing his f-ing classic "Evidently Chickentown")) and he doesn’t overload it with music, though the song accompanying the final shot is a bit obvious.
The real question is, who is the audience for Control? Joy Division fans will surely want more of the band, Martin Hannet, Rob Gretton, and Tony Wilson; and everyone else is likely to wonder what all the fuss is about. Control is not a bad film, just a disjointed one. And probably unnecessary. The music is testament enough.
Control is released October 10 in the U.S.