When Ian Curtis hanged himself at his suburban home outside Manchester, England, the 23-year-old singer ended a short career. But he was about to embark on a second life as one of rock’s most enduring and enigmatic figures.
At the time, few people had heard of Curtis or his fledgling punk band, Joy Division, who were set to embark on a U.S. tour the day after his death on May 18, 1980. Since then Curtis has become a touchstone for generations of alternative rockers from The Cure to Nine Inch Nails to Interpol. At the same time, those closest to him, including his band mates - who went on to form the successful pop group New Order - closed ranks and generally refused to discuss him in the press. So Curtis’ story remained cloudy even as his stature as a tragic poet grew.
Now Curtis is getting the kind of treatment usually reserved for famous fallen icons like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, with not one but two movies based on his life. The feature film “Control,” directed by celebrity photographer Anton Corbijn, is a period piece that depicts Curtis as a charismatic but troubled performer unable to cope with the onset of fame, much like Kurt Cobain after him. The upcoming documentary “Joy Division,” co-produced by Tom Atencio, New Order’s American manager, recalls Curtis as a young man whose cries for help - clearly audible in his despairing lyrics - went unheeded even by those closest to him.
To coincide with the films and the 30th anniversary of Joy Division’s formation, Rhino Records has released a vinyl box set of the band’s official recordings. (It retails for $199.98.) Three double-disc CDs, combining original albums with unreleased live performances, are due Oct. 28. And in an attempt to market Curtis’ dark persona to a new generation of fans, Rhino is offering two of Joy Division’s best-known songs, “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” as ringtones.
Not all worshipers of Curtis will be happy to see their hero hit the mainstream. Decades ago, his murky tale served as “oral tradition in the underground music scene,” said Chris Ott, author of a book on Joy Division’s music titled “Unknown Pleasures.” But as Curtis’ survivors have become more vocal and more willing to participate in projects like “Control,” the singer’s legacy may lose some of its mystery.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Ott said. “It cheapens it a bit.”
Neither film paints Curtis as a romantic figure. The documentary explores his struggle with epilepsy, a condition that worsened as his fame began to grow. In “Control,” success exacerbates another of Curtis’ problems, his chronic marital infidelity. The film is based on “Touching From a Distance,” the 1995 memoir written by Curtis’ widow, Deborah.
“I definitely didn’t want to do more myth-making,” said Corbijn, who met Joy Division in November 1979 and shot the now-iconic photograph of the band walking forlornly through an underground tube station.
In “Control,” which marks Corbijn’s directorial debut, Curtis (played by newcomer Sam Riley) comes off as sensitive but ultimately selfish. As Joy Division’s success introduces him to vistas beyond Manchester, he drifts away from his wife, neglects his infant daughter and falls in love with a sophisticated young Belgian girl named Annik Honore, whom he met on tour. The affair destroyed Curtis’ marriage, but also inspired “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the closest Joy Division ever came to a hit single.
Corbijn spoke to both women while making the film. “I was trying to be very neutral,” he said. Though Honore was initially reluctant to participate, “she wanted people to know that Ian really loved her, and she was not trying to wreck his life,” he said. She even provided several letters Curtis wrote to her, which Corbijn pieced together as a kind of suicide note in the film. (Curtis’ real note has been kept private by his widow.)
The real-life Honore makes a rare appearance in the documentary. “Fans were amazed to see her,” said Atencio, the producer, who recently attended the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. “She’s a reclusive figure who feels very awkward about her part in these events. It took me six months of e-mailing to arrange a meeting.”
Both films take pains to trace Joy Division’s ascent through the Manchester music scene that eventually birthed the Smiths, Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. The first sparks came from a pair of now legendary Sex Pistols’ gigs in the summer of 1976,which, according to lore, inspired nearly everyone in attendance to rush out and form a band. Joy Division - which would include guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris - was one of them.
Curtis, with his gangly build and ghostly pale eyes, had none of the snarl of “punk.” His baritone voice could be commanding or frail, and his lyrics focused less on rebellion than on alienation. In the documentary, the late Tony Wilson, who signed the band to his seminal Factory Records label, posits that Joy Division marked the inevitable point where punk’s anger turned inward.
In its three-year career the band released only two albums, “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer,” both marked by a stark, futuristic sound that had little precedent. Hook, the bassist, drove the melodies, while Sumner’s guitar provided rhythm and texture. Much of the chilled atmosphere came from the producer, Martin Hannett, who pioneered the use of digital delay (then a new technology that created startling echo effects) and who seemed obsessed with percussion sounds (one scene in “Control” shows the drummer creating a hissing snare track with an aerosol can).
The lyrics, however, belonged to Curtis. “Interzone” reflects the soul-crushing scenery of industrial Manchester; “Dead Souls” describes a Kafkaesque nightmare; “Atrocity Exhibition” seems to hint at Curtis’ epilepsy. On “Isolation,” his despair is clear: “I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.”
Despite such signals, Curtis’ band mates seemed completely unconcerned, and in the documentary they admit as much. His distinctively spasmodic movements onstage, which seemed to echo his illness, were jokingly called “the dead-fly dance.” Even after Curtis fell into grand mal seizures and attempted suicide with an overdose of pills, the band stuck to business as usual. Strangely, it appears few around Curtis bothered to read his lyrics.
“The thing that you had to reconcile about Ian, he’s telling you one thing but obviously suffering,” Hook said in a recent phone interview. “He was telling us he was all right, begging us to believe he was OK. But in hindsight, he blatantly wasn’t.”
As it turned out, one person who heard the signs was Honore. In the documentary, Tony Wilson of Factory Records recalls reassuring her that Curtis would be fine. “It’s just art,” he says.
But then he curses himself: “How stupid can you get?”