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by Bill Gibron

4 Jun 2008


The old adage that actors want to be rock stars (and visa versa) has produced some equally clichéd results. No one is championing the cringe inducing drunkness of Bruce Willis’ lame ‘Bruno’ alter ego, nor are the Blues Brothers well-placed in their genre defying (or desecrating) dopiness. There have been some successful crossovers - at least to fans of Jared Leto - but for the most part, such efforts are seen as the product of pure and unapologetic vanity. And without a thriving ‘musical’ movement to keep the vocally astute performer happy - or employed - we will probably see more of these medium-traversing mash-ups. 

The latest entry in the star as chanteuse dynamic is Scarlett Johansson. Frequently voted one of the most beautiful young actresses working today, the starlet has quite the resume. From a small part in the notorious Rob Reiner bomb North, to her recent successes in efforts like Lost in Translation, The Girl in the Pearl Necklace and The Prestige, at 23 she’s considered a burgeoning superstar. While she gets glowing critical notices, some can’t get past her basic blond aura (and accompanying curvaceousness).

So the question of her cutting a record might seem ridiculous, until you do a little research. As a graduate of the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, Johansson had a fair amount of training. She was even considered for the role of Maria in the recent UK revival of The Sound of Music. She appeared on the compilation Unexpected Dreams – Songs from the Stars (singing “Summertime”) and even added back-up for an unexpected Jesus and Mary Chain reunion at Coachella 2007.

Yet no one could have expected Johansson to head off to Maurice Louisiana, hook up with a ragtag group of marginal to mainstream musicians, and cut a collection of Tom Waits covers. Any one of those factual statements sound suspicious at best, specious at the very worst. It’s the oddest sonic amalgamations since Soft Cell’s Marc Almond recorded an entire collection of Russian romance ballads. Yet when viewed outside of the entire movie star/surreal subtext argument, Anywhere I Lay My Head is actually pretty great.

The album starts off, oddly enough, with an instrumental. “Fawn”, derived from Waits’ 2002 work Alice, sets the mood of what’s to come effortlessly, the 12 piece combo creating a noise that’s both melancholy and mad. Highly reminiscent of David Lynch’s sonic statements, there’s a real calm before the storm quality to the aural backdrop. Yet when you consider the subtext here - the track was written for a stage play version of Alice in Wonderland, the appropriateness for what Johansson is aiming for is clear (even the cover art seems symbolic). We’re about to go down the rabbit hole with the heretofore unknown diva, and anything can happen.

“Town With No Cheer” begins the entire Dietrich dilemma. If Johansson has a vocal muse, a personality she filters her fragile yet throaty lilt through, it’s the magnificent Marlene. Though the setting sounds suspiciously like an outtake from Julee Cruise’s catalog, our star sells Waits’ words (from Swordfishtrombones) in a clipped European call. It’s a style she will revisit often throughout the course of these songs. “Falling Down” draws on the actress’s openness and fresh faced allure, especially when matched against David Bowie’s bravura backing vocals and Sean Antanaitis’ banjo. It’s the closest the album comes to mimicking a certain genre or type - call it countried folk.

Rain Dogs is represented next, and the organ-heavy title track to this collection comes across as a solid statement of defiance. Waits’ lyrics, reflecting the inner strength of someone struggling against the traumas of life, fit the actress naturally. So do the rambling travelers blues of “Fannin Road”. Bowie returns to add his own ephemeral grace, his well honed pipes producing a nice contrast to Johansson’s more mercurial tones. With its drone like instrumentation and air of uncertainty, it’s a fine musical moment.

Next up is Anywhere I Lay My Head‘s sole original, a track written by Johansson and project guiding light David Andrew Sitek (from indie rockers TV on the Radio). Named for the actress, “Song for Jo” struggles against the might of Waits’ work. But with its fancy flute trills and distorted thunder guitars, it embraces the implied drama present in the rest of the recording. Things wander directly back into Waits’ aesthetic with “Green Grass”. Its clunky percussion and off time tendencies definitely doesn’t offer the sincerest form of flattery. Yet when a similarly ambient take on Alice‘s “No One Knows I’m Gone” shows up, the gentle guitar wash and machine beats provide a wonderfully weird setting. Here, Johansson’s tiny timber works to her - and the material’s - advantage.

If the album has a pure genius stroke, it’s the reimagining of Small Change‘s “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” as a sad, salutatory lullaby. Composed in 1976, the current post-Katrina aura infuses Johansson’s pretty picture pouting with all manner of meaning. Such a strategic switch-up doesn’t quite work for the synthpop silliness of “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”. The Bone Machine effort, flawlessly covered by the Ramones after Waits’ own semi-successful interpretation, barely survives the Samantha Fox teen queen revamp. Johansson’s reading of Machine‘s other contribution, “Who Are You” comes off much better. Sitek’s vocals add a nice maturity, complementing the lead lines effortlessly.

Overall, one has to give this actress credit. She didn’t need to take such strategically difficult sonic subject matter and threaten her promising reputation over it. In interviews, she’s claimed a legitimate fear of what Waits would think, and while reports indicate he’s been very “supportive” and “quite pleased” with the results, a direct comment from the man has yet to arrive. It may not be the kind of support Johansson is looking for, in the long run.

Sometimes, it’s better when an artist can stand on their own, outside the sphere of influence created by their creative mentor. In this case, Anywhere I Lay My Head stands solidly outside what Tom Waits managed with this always engaging material. Scarlett Johansson may not have a future as a rock star, but there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here - unless you consider the frequent riches this LP contains.

by Bill Gibron

3 Jun 2008


Don’t let anyone tell you differently - cinema is cyclical. Ever since the initial barrage of old school Hollywood studio glitter, films (and their maverick makers) have been finding a way to rebel, and then revolt against said aesthetic uprising over and over again. Fantasy like fiction gave way to neo-realism, while the old techniques of static shots and journeymen direction mandated a whole ‘New Wave’ of experimentation. All throughout the ‘70s, French filmmaking was going through its own post-modern movement. Movies focused on the problems of real people, presented in a manner that accurately - and often uncomfortably - mimicked life.

In 1981, first time filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix decided to radicalize his approach to the medium. Drawing on deliberate artificiality - and a novel by Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym Delacorta - Diva was the result. It gained instant worldwide acclaim, and even managed to become a certified cult hit in America. It announced a new approach in French cinema, labeled Cinema du look, and introduced the talents of Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax. While some saw a thread of political relevance inside the style - the subject matter usually centered on the disillusioned youth of the era - many felt this new form was more flash than finesse.

Oddly enough, it was a similar argument used against the burgeoning US independents of the mid ‘90s. Wunderkind directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky were considered brilliant visionaries whose efforts carried a gloss of uneasy emotional detachment - again, all technique and no import. Yet their influence guided cinema for the next decade, swaying many who felt that film needed a swift kick in the creativity to remain vital. After getting his start in the art video circuit, Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard applied his passion for classical music toward an intriguing biography of a legendary pianist. His 1993 opus 32 Short Films About Glen Gould brought instant notoriety, its unusual conceit reflecting this newfound desire to reinvent the form of cinema. Five year later, critics would complain about his vignette heavy time trip, The Red Violin.

Thanks to Lionsgate, who is introducing a new line of important DVDs under the “Meridian Collection” tag, we get a chance to revisit both films to see if their particular era-oriented vision still holds up over the decades. In the case of Beineix, Diva still derives a great deal of its pizzazz out of elements that now seem sort of dated. When one thinks about camera trickery and directorial flare, a film like this instantly comes to mind. On the other hand, The Red Violin is like a lush lesson in ephemeral emptiness. There are times when the movie seems so lightweight and puffy that you wait for it to simply vanish into the ether and disappear from the screen. This does not mean they are bad films - far from it. But in a format friendly dynamic that gives even the most unsung work a chance to shine, both Diva and The Red Violin have been bypassed by other, more daring deconstructions.

As a starting point for all this filmic flare, Diva has one of the more straightforward stories. A young mail courier named Jules (Frédéric Andréi) enjoys his pseudo-slacker life on the fringes. He particularly loves opera, and the vocal work of American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). So taken is he with the ‘diva’, that he makes an illegal recording of a recent recital. Somehow, his tape gets mixed up with that of a recent police sting, and the mobsters at the center want all evidence eliminated - including Jules. Thus begins an extended chase with both police and criminals after our hapless hero.

The Red Violin, on the other hand, takes the Glenn Gould approach to narrative, using the title instrument as a thread linking several divergent storylines. When a rare example of a ‘Bussotti’ is auctioned off, flashbacks fill in the gaps in the item’s history. We see the creator perfecting his creation, watch as it finds its way into the hands of a child prodigy, and witness its part in China’s Cultural Revolution. In between, there are stop offs with noblemen, nonentities, and a particularly intense historian (Samuel L. Jackson). Not surprisingly, the delicate object has one final secret to reveal.

One of the great things about the digital format remains the ability for filmmakers to defend their work. Sometimes, the most difficult offerings have the easiest of explanations. That is clearly the case with both Diva and The Red Violin. On the Lionsgate DVDs, both Jean-Jacques Beineix (in a scene specific overview) and Francois Girard (a full length discussion with co-writer Don McKellar) are present to contextualize their craft. Of the two, the latter is far more informative. Beineix is all shot selection and memories, not so much a defense of his highly ostentatious outing as it is a primer of possibilities. Girard is more forgiving. He underscores his motives, making sure listeners understand the allusions and mythos he was employing.

Even better, we get added material that makes both films feel less calculated and more manageable. Beineix’s baby draws on a wonderful documentary revisit entitled “Searching for Diva”. In it, cast and crew expand our knowledge of the movie while making clear how much of the style was purposefully premeditated. Violin relies on more indirect guidance. One short piece outlines the auction of a rare “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivari (clearly an inspiration for the film), while another allows the Oscar winning composer of the sensational score - John Corigliano - to discuss the movie’s main theme. Certainly, obsessives will wonder why there isn’t more material here. Yet Lionsgate gives each disc just enough heft to warrant a reissue. Besides, the newly remastered transfers look terrific.

This doesn’t address each movie from a critical standpoint, however, and this is where both Diva and The Red Violin suffer, if ever so slightly. For the earlier effort, the passage of almost three decades has been almost deadly. What was fresh and reinvigorating then is now harshly kitschy and borderline camp. This doesn’t take away from Beineix’s way with an action scene - the motorcycle chase through the Paris streets is still exciting, it’s jump cut skill reinvigorating the then dying action element. Yet some of the moments where characters mope about in pre-Goth gloom, or worse, run around like refugees from a camp revival of A Clockwork Orange, come across as cheesy as an Adam Ant video. Diva still delivers a great deal of pleasure within its now noticeable knottiness, and the performances are excellent and quite accomplished. Yet this is the kind of experience that makes one wonder how current cinematic turning points (CGI, the ‘found footage’ first person POV genre jolts) will play 30 years from now. 

If The Red Violin is any indication, style doesn’t always need substance to succeed. In fact, sumptuousness can trump depth with a carefully constructed composition. The broad scope of Girard’s canvas - he moves through the centuries as effortlessly as a virtuoso’s fingers along the frets - definitely allows for a more hit or miss approach, but here the director delivers more times than he fails. The material centering on the child prodigy is highly engaging, as are the moments in Communist China. Jackson’s story may seem the weakest, but watching the actor outside his element (we keep waiting for him to break out into a string of venomous epithets) and underplaying his part is highly entertaining. There are those who’ve complained that Violin violates the whole ‘image over import’ ideal. Sadly, they seem to be missing many of the movie’s more noticeable attributes.

Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss either film for what it offers visually vs. how it plays as a thriller or a detailed drama. Diva can never shake its Cinema du look logistics, but ignoring the calculated bells and whistles, it is still a satisfying experience. So what if The Red Violin appears deeper, and less deliberate. There is still enough visual privilege to make those inclined to criticize apoplectic. Just remember that this is all part of film’s recurring reboot and all your concerns will be calmed. Diva and The Red Violin definitely deserve continued recognition, and Lionsgate Meridian Collection is a perfect way of preserving them for future debate/consideration. And there will be a great deal of both.

by Bill Gibron

2 Jun 2008


Coens Get the Red Band Treatment
The trailer for Burn After Reading, the latest film from the Academy Award winning duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, got the restrictive “Red Band” treatment this week. This means that the preview is not appropriate for all audiences, as the standard MPAA “Green Band” adverts allow. You can find it on Apple’s main page, or by following this link


Hamlet 2 Also Gets the Crimson Call
The comedy smash of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (set for release this August), centering on a failed actor-turned-worse-high-school-drama teacher (Steve Coogan) as he rallies his Tucson, AZ students and stages a politically incorrect musical sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, also gets the R-rated distinction. Click on over to the official site to see it.


Gore Goes Opera - from the AP
With Summer here and global warming on everyone’s mind (especially in those areas prone to hurricanes) we learn that Al Gore’s Oscar (and Nobel) winning, An Inconvenient Truth is going to be made into a opera. You can read about the aria-based revamp here
 

Brooks Closes (and the Reopens His) Production Company - from New York Post
Similar to those old jokes about the rumors of someone’s death being greatly exaggerated comes word that the story last week about Mel Brooks closing his long running BrooksFilms Production Company appears to be false. The New York Post‘s Page Six ran this story indicating that the cinematic shingle responsible for David Lynch’s Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, among others, was shutting down. Now Brooks is setting the record straight via The Hollywood Reporter.


Dawn Goes Back to Where It All Happened - Literally
As part of their ever popular Rolling Roadshow, Austin, Texas’ Alamo Drafthouse will be offering a screening of George A. Romero’s 1978 horror masterpiece - Dawn of the Dead - in the Monroeville Mall. That’s right, after the facility closes on 21 June, 500 lucky fans can now actually see the classic creepshow in the actual suburban Pittsburgh location where it was filmed. All proceeds will be donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation! Toe Tag Pictures will be doing zombie make-up on guests all day leading up to the screening to help make this evening all the more memorable, as over ten Dawn alumni will be on-hand during the screening to ensure the night’s authenticity. More information can be found at this link

Porno Gets a Teaser
Kevin Smith’s latest, the quick sale comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got its own kind of teaser this week at the director’s Quick Stop Entertainment site - check the “not appropriate for work” sneak here.
 



House of Mouse Branches Into Comics
From the official press release:
The Walt Disney Studios has signed a multi-year deal with Ahmet Zappa, Harris Katleman and Christian Beranek to oversee the newly christened Kingdom Comics, an innovative new venture of developing graphic novels to create new film projects for the Studio as well as re-imagining and rejuvenating motion pictures from the Disney live-action Vault, it was announced today by Oren Aviv, president, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Production.

Kingdom Comics will soon announce some of the top graphic novelists and artists in the genre who will collaborate on upcoming projects.  Disney Publishing Worldwide, the largest distributor of comic books in the world, will have the first opportunity to distribute publications created by Kingdom Comics.


Obituaries:

Sydney Pollack (1934 - 2008): Read the SE&L Obit Here


Harvey Korman (1927 - 2008): Read the SE&L Obit Here
 

DVD releases of Note for 3 June

Heroes of the East: Read the SE&L Review Here
Come Drink with Me: Read the SE&L Review Here
Control: Read the SE&L Review Here
The Red Violin: Read the SE&L Review Here
Diva: Read the SE&L Review Here
Semi-Pro: Read the SE&L Theatrical Review Here
The Eye
Meet the Spartans


Box Office Figures for Weekend of 30 May

#1 - Sex and the City: $56.1 million
#2 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $45.8 million
#3 - The Strangers: $20.6 million
#4 - Iron Man: $13.9 million
#5 - The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: $13.1 million
#6 - What Happens in Vegas: $6.9 million
#7 - Baby Mama: $2.2 million
#8 - Speed Racer: $2.1 million
#9 - Made of Honor: $2.0 million
#10 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall: $1.0 million


Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
Kung Fu Panda - Jack Black stars as a bumbling bear that dreams of being a martial arts master. Rated PG
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan - Adam Sandler is an Israeli Anti-Terrorist Agent who fakes his death to move to the US and become… a hairdresser. Rated R

Limited
Mongol - Oscar nominated story of Genghis Khan, as told through the eyes of his wife. Rated R
The Promotion - two managers vie for a coveted position at their job. Rated R
When Did You Last See Your Father? - with his parent dying, a distant son tries to resolve his conflicting emotions. Rated PG-13

by Bill Gibron

1 Jun 2008


It was what we did every Saturday night. Before we discovered dating, drugs, and delinquency, the pre-adolescents of the ‘60s and ‘70s sat down in front of the boob tube with complete parental guidance and gave Carol Burnett and her merry band of parody pranksters 50 minutes of our undivided attention. We would wade through the endless shots of Lyle Wagner’s chin, tolerate Vicki Lawrence’s Mini-Younger-Me version of the star attraction, and the lunatic fringiness of latter addition Tim Conway, just to see…him. And the minute Harvey Korman walked out onto the soundstage, we were prepared. You see, the classic straight man with an unusual executive presence, was the most unpredictable aspect of Burnett’s sketch satire.

The other formidable individual in Korman’s career also got his start in television. But thanks to an Oscar for his hilarious The Producers, Mel Brooks rapidly became a film farce icon. Looking for someone to fill the frequently difficult role of comic villain, he tagged Korman to essay the partr of evil railroad tycoon Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles. For those used to seeing the comedian every week, his turn in the controversial classic was a revelation. Gone were the unintentional snickers and moments of sketch stretch ad libbing. In there place was a fiery farcical turn as the only man who could sentence innocent people to death while simultaneously humping a knickknack. Brooks was so impressed he brought Korman back for High Anxiety, History of the World Part 1, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

By the time he entered the hospital with a ruptured abdominal aorta four months ago, Korman was resigned to a life out of the ultra bright limelight. While he and Conway would still tour with a stage show that relied heavily on their Burnett days, the 81 year old was no longer in his prime. His health had been shaky for years (he even joked about it in interviews) and the emergency surgery resulted in a protracted stay, and by the time he passed away on 30 May, he had been through the medical mill. Several operations and the usual “complications” meant that humor had lost one of its heavy lifters. In the world of second bananas, Korman wasn’t just the tops, he was the surefire sweetest of the bunch.

He was born in 1927 to Chicagoans Cyril and Ellen Korman. In kindergarten, he started acting. By the time he was 12, he had turned professional, landing a gig on a local radio show. All throughout high school and up and during his service in World War II (he was a Navy man), Korman was desperate to perform. Upon his discharge, he moved to New York, took the occasional odd job, and began the painful process of auditioning. When nothing turned up after several years beating down Broadway, he moved to Hollywood. There, among the burgeoning broadcasts of early television, he found his variety show niche.

The venerable Danny Kaye gave Korman his big break. In 1964, he became a regular on the versatile star’s TV series. It was the kind of recognition the 37 year old was dying for…and it worked. Three years later, Carol Burnett came calling. Over the next 11 years, Korman would win four Emmys (he was nominated for a total of seven), bring home a Golden Globe, and share the small screen with individuals soon to become undeniable TV myths. Burnett’s show was part burlesque, part social satire, part movie/pop culture parody, and the rest of the genre’s sensational shtick all rolled into one. Korman was a genius as short form free-for-all, and yet he hoped he could make the leap to motion pictures. Turns in mediocrity like Lord Love a Duck, Last of the Secret Agents, and The April Fools didn’t help his quest.

No, it took Brooks shrewd eye to give Korman the roles he required to break out. Hedley Lamarr remains Saddles most surreal creation, a fourth wall breaking bad guy who sees greed and goofiness as shared positive attributes. He has no trouble trouncing his own reputation both as a character and as a performer (Korman has a classic line about destroying his chances for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for how arch and over the top he is) and he does it all with a snicker and a smirk. While it wasn’t that big of a stretch from what he was doing with Burnett and company every week, Brooks typically gave his casts a more profane playground within which to romp. It was perfect for someone as sly as Korman.

High Anxiety offered another type of weirdo, this time the dominated asylum administrator Dr. Charles Montague. He delivered a delightful turn, even if Brooks’ obsession with aping Hitchcock frequently undermined the film’s overall funny business. Perhaps Korman’s most memorable moment for the writer/director was as the catty Count De Monet in History of the World Part 1. Few will forget his most memorable retort to a traveling companion, “Don’t get saucy with me, Béarnaise.”  While it was a minor cameo in a wildly uneven movie, Korman made the sequence solely his. Yet after showing up in the deadly dumb Dracula spoof, he never got a chance to work with Brooks again. As he aged, Korman became a frequent guest star in episodic TV, as well as an accomplished voice over artist. The latter wasn’t that big of a leap - kids in the ‘60s had adored his take on the Flintstone’s friendly alien advisor, the Great Gazoo.

Korman, for his part, was always unsure of his stardom. In conversations later on in life, he would joke about leaving the Burnett show, about the hubris of thinking he could go it alone, and the failure he felt when proposed solo sitcoms or showcases went nowhere. There were times when he seemed angry about all the attention to his work in sketch comedy, as if somehow he was being reduced to a certain satiric stereotype. He never badmouthed those who he worked with, and was respectful (if slightly resentful) for the backwards glancing. Yet when CBS aired a reunion of sorts in a celebrated flashback show from 1993, rating were through the roof. It both validated and confused the comic. Even up until his death, Korman seemed convinced that major mega-celebrity was just another casting call away.

By the time the millennium rolled around, Korman was in his mid-70s. He made a couple of appearances in cartoon-related product, and spent some time reminiscing for those inevitable “whatever happened to” nostalgia shows that VH-1 and TV Land specialize in. He maintained close ties with Conway, and stayed in touch with Burnett and the rest throughout the years. In a recent piece, Brooks complimented his former fiend, saying that no one could sell a straight line like Korman. While he made life on the set complicated (Mel couldn’t keep his directorial demeanor whenever Harvey was vamping), he was a necessary element in Saddles/Anxiety‘s success. Yet for many, Korman will always be Mother Marcus, the gigantic Jewish mother, or the hapless bumpkin Ed, married to the shrill, insufferable Eunice. Yes, every Saturday night, we sat waiting to see what Harvey Korman would do next. It was always worth it.

by Bill Gibron

1 Jun 2008


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. 

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