3 ½ stars
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton
Director: Anton Corbijn
Time: 2 hours, 1 minute
“Control” is a joy. It’s one of the best music biopics in years, as good as the Johnny Cash film “Walk the Line” and the Ray Charles saga “Ray.” Of course, the movie isn’t likely to receive as much attention as either of those, in large part because its subject isn’t well known to the American public.
“Control” tells the story of Ian Curtis, the troubled lead singer of British post-punk band Joy Division who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. The group only released two albums during Curtis’ lifetime, yet the band’s music - a mix of the artsy nature of Roxy Music and the punk edge of the Buzzcocks - has stood the test of time and has proven incredibly influential.
So influential, in fact, that “Control” is the second biopic to address the Joy Division legacy. The first was 2002’s “24 Hour Party People,” which chronicled the rise of the Manchester music scene, beginning with the Joy-ous punk days of the late `70s and traveling into the “Madchester” dance-rock of the `80s with New Order and the Happy Mondays. The main character in that film was Tony Wilson (wonderfully portrayed by comedian Steve Coogan), the man who signed all of those Manchester-area acts to his Factory Records label.
Joy Division fans will appreciate the accuracy of the “Control” story line, which never seems to venture far from real life. Curtis’ story is carefully and lovingly told by people who were actually there. The film is based on the book “Touching From a Distance” by the singer’s widow, Deborah Curtis, who also helped produce it. Wilson (who died in August) served as one of the co-producers, and Curtis’ former bandmates - who went on to greater commercial success as New Order - handled the score.
The whole ensemble is wonderful, but Sam Riley (as Ian Curtis) and Samantha Morton (as Deborah Curtis) are especially impressive.
Riley, a striking newcomer who boasts DiCaprio-like good looks, is believable in every facet of the journey. He exudes the charisma and passion that make us understand why Curtis so quickly captivated fans, and then makes us see how, in the midst of such a promising career, the singer could contemplate suicide. Plus, his ability to sound like Curtis on the microphone is astounding.
Morton is more than just along for the ride. We feel her character’s pain as the dreams of a normal family life clash with the reality of being married to a rock star - which makes the relationship facet of the movie just as interesting as the musical element.
The true star of “Control” is director Anton Corbijn, who makes the jump from photojournalism and videos (Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”) to the big screen look easy. He goes against the trend in music biopics - to bombard viewers with jump-cuts and other MTV-approved stimuli - and takes the time to compose and frame each shot like it was the cover photo for a coffee-table book. His style is reminiscent of the French masters Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
What worries me is the possibility that only Joy Division fans will see the film. If that turns out to be the case, far too many people will miss what may well be the best music biopic of the year.