The most revolutionary thing about punk wasn’t the music, though it’s hard to imagine that ‘70s listeners were ready for the Ramones/Sex Pistols style of cacophonous crash and burn. And it definitely wasn’t the fashion, since safety pins and bondage gear were nothing more than the flairs and love beads of a differing era. In some ways, it was the attitude, even if every generation finds a way to rebel against the authority they feel are strangulating their future. No, the true ‘white riot’ came within the DIY dynamic, the notion that this style of music provided an open door for anyone with drive and a desire an outlet to be heard. All they had to do was pick up an instrument, learn to play it (optional), and bring the noise.
Of course, not everyone followed the three chord slam. There were bands that believed punk’s power awarded them the opportunity to express themselves in whatever manner they saw fit. All throughout England, pockets of post-movement music were making that distinction. The kids of Sheffield channeled their German synth heroes, while Coventry discovered the jazzy Jamaican skank of ska. In Manchester, birthplace of the industrial revolution, two schoolmates were looking to mimic the Buzzocks’ buzzsaw pop. After recruiting a pair of like minded locals, Warsaw was born. Eventually, they’d sack their drummer, rename themselves after the prostitution section of a Nazi concentration camp, and take to the stage as Joy Division. The rest, as they say, is rock and roll mythology.
What happened when singer Ian Curtis, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and percussionist Stephen Morris entered the studio to record with lunatic producer (and noted drug addict) Martin Hannett pushed the providence into legend. The tragedy that turned the remnants of the act into New Order sealed such a folklore fate. Now, two new films hope to uncover the truth about the entire Joy Division experience, from the no nonsense approach of the business, to the over-romanticized suicide of Curtis. Each one takes a diametrically opposed look at the story, and yet each reaches the same conclusion - Joy Division was the moment when punk truly reached its purpose.
In 2007 Grant Gee, noted for his excellent on the road overview of Radiohead’s rise to fame during the promotion of OK Computer (Meeting People is Easy), turned his sights on the seminal foursome for Joy Division, his amazingly in-depth documentary of their rise and rapid fall. That same year, photographer (and longtime fan) Anton Corbijin made his feature film debut with a biopic of the band he once worked with. Control contains the truth mirrored in fictional flashes, the focus more on Curtis as a person than as a rock and roll symbol.
When viewed side by side, they become something quite surreal - a combination of companion pieces that both verify and violate the very terms of a biography. We get swatches of history inside a spiraling attempt to expose a perspective-plotted accuracy. Thanks to Genius Product, the Weinstein Company, and their new Miriam Collection DVD division, we are treated to a pair of perplexing, important films that fulfill the mandates of the genre while peeling back the layers of lies and fables.
Though it tends to wear it’s artiness on its work shirted sleeve, Joy Division is still a wonderful first person tell-all. Utilizing as many living participants as possible - only Hannett and manager rob Rob Gretton, both of whom died of a heart attack, and widow Deborah Curtis fail to show - we get the preamble to the band’s story. Sumner, Hook, and Morris maintain a very stiff upper lip, shrugging off suggestions that they are in any way complicit in the death of their mate, while several people suggest, including former Factory Records chief Tony Wilson, that Curtis could have been helped had anyone really been paying attention. The punk philosophy, which can best be described as the two fingered salute in UK gestures - is evident throughout the documentary. Gee goes overboard with the odd illustrative tags and flashback referencing, but the chance to see the actual players speak for themselves is valuable in and of itself.
So are the varying versions of what exactly happened. In Control, director Corbijin does a delicate job of demystifying Curtis’ suicide. We never see it, but we witness every personal detail beforehand. Many of the incidents mirror the stories we hear in Joy Division, yet without the ability to see a fictional Ian in action, the sadness still sounds emblematic. But Control countermands this. In Sam Riley - who really does do a magnificent job of playing our tragic hero as a human being - Corbijin discovers a veritable clone, someone who is capable of channeling Curtis onstage as well as bringing a similar intensity to his normative life. Both movies make it clear that Joy Division’s success never translated into the typical music biz trappings. Curtis and his mates always needed money, and one former acquaintance guesses that, in total, each only earned about $2500.
Since Control comes from Debbie’s side of the story - it is based on her 1995 autobiography Touching from a Distance - Curtis’ affair with diplomatic liaison Annik Honoré is given short shrift. In Joy Division, it feels like a fully formed relationship, the actual participant present and pleading her case. But Control treats the whole issue as a selfish, indulgent act by a man confused as to what he wanted and a woman who was more or less a glorified groupie. It’s not an issue of great love, but of lust complicated by epilepsy and the medication Curtis took. It’s not the only odd juxtaposition between the two films. Peter Hook, who does condemn his own actions in Joy Division, is portrayed as a slightly homophobic prick in Control. What few lines of dialogue the character has center around the name “Buzzcocks” and other random criticisms.
Corbijin’s decision to film in black and white definitely adds to his position. Thanks to the monochrome, there is a gravity in how Control depicts its events that Joy Division can’t quite match. It’s as if imagines are battling words for authenticity. As a filmmaker, this former video music master has the chops. There are times when Curtis and his bandmates look like the men of mystery and ethereality as history has held them out to be. At other instances, Manchester looks like a big gray garden, concrete taking the place of anything natural or organic. Corbijin does go back to his previous career when handling some of the musical material. Compared to the live performances seen in Joy Division, he argues for his ability to capture the very essence of the stage experience.
In fact, one could easily see the two films fused together to turn into the type of epic tell-all that John Lydon perfected with his masterful book Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. In said tome, the former Sex Pistol presented the facts of his life as he saw them, and then allowed others to write their own commentaries contradicting/complementing his tales. While Joy Division lays down the basics, Control creates a more emotional version of the band’s story. Corbijin is not really interested in the machinations of rock and roll. The concert scenes are amazing, but manager Rob Gretton is more comic relief than window into that world. We never learn how Hannett made Unknown Pleasures in his own oddball aural imagine, or why the band went along with that decision. Indeed, the documentary focuses far more on how the music was made than why.
Of course, that’s the major question of Curtis’ life. How did a civil servant, well read but rather unmotivated, married too young and yet quite comfortable with his domestic situation (at least initially) become the darker, more dour Jim Morrison of his generation? Where did his disconcerting laments about alienation and depressive come from? Joy Division suggests that Manchester itself, a dying industrial giant desperate for a rebirth, may have been the motive. The rest of the band considered it pretty bleak. Yet Control contains sequences that suggest a relatively happy Curtis. Once he is diagnosed with epilepsy however (still a vastly misunderstood disease in the ‘70s) it seems to fuel a forgotten set of pains. Both may be catalysts, though they are probably more guesses than anything else.
Both DVDs dive deep into the details, presenting extended interviews (on Joy Division) and commentaries from Corbijin (on Control). Band participation is explained, metaphors are drawn up and explained, and anecdotes fill in the blanks. Of the two presentations, Control is more complete, since it offers a making-of featurette and some additional conversations with the filmmaker. Gee is nowhere to be found in the Joy Division supplements, in what must be a clear case of a director believing his film speaks for itself. Visually, both movies look great, and as they do with most of their packages, Genius never scrimps on the technical specifications.
Yet one will definitely walk away from Joy Division and Control with more questions than straight answers. Some might even argue that after seeing Curtis in such a flawed light, his muse may no longer matter. The band certainly seems timeless, and still their songs do preach to a much more insular and uninviting world. For better or worse, post-millennial culture is too junky and juvenile to be in tune with such angular doom. As seminal albums of punk’s harrowing hangover, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Closer are indeed outstanding. They resemble nothing of their time, or the future to come. The story of how these records were made still remains something ephemeral and vague. But thanks to these two incredible films, Ian Curtis can finally rest in peace. The burden of his legend seems lost now - and he probably would have wanted it that way.