When your time’s on the door,
And it drips to the floor,
And you feel you can touch,
All the noise is too much,
And the seeds that are sown,
Are no longer your own.
— Joy Division, “Leaders of Men”
Rendered in starkly poetic black and white, Control‘s version of Ian Curtis is seductive, sad, and unsurprising. The movie traces the last eight years or so of the artist’s short life, that is, events that will be well known to even the most casual followers of Joy Division, the band he fronted until his suicide at age 23. Still, the film is compelling, not for its plot or even its resonant imagery (first time director Anton Corbijn is a longtime rock photographer) but for its consideration of pop music’s mythologizing, the process by which artists are turned into icons.
Certainly, it helps to die young. Incarnating his beauty and distress, actor Sam Riley brings a kind of slouchy resolve. Frustrated and ambitious, Curtis first appears here as a teenager in Macclesfield, in the Northwest of England, boyish and beautiful, self-aware but also careless. Smoking cigarettes and listening to David Bowie sing “Jean Genie” in his bedroom, he imagines his own stardom. A mirror reflects his idealized self-image, his chest pale and skinny, his eye-liner thick. If music is not precisely a means to self-expression, it does allow a transformation, a reimagined identity that might be performed to perfection. The yearning Curtis in this early scene is a fan before he’s an artist, wanting so much to be elsewhere and someone else that he looks haunted, as if pursued by a ghost from his future.
At these moments, imagining how Curtis came to be, Control reveals its own possibilities. Such brief shots of the unknown (maybe pre-known) Ian Curtis, too unformed and private even for Deborah Curtis’ memoir, Touching From a Distance (from which Matt Greenhalgh adapted the screenplay), are both more and less truthful than the more banal reenactments of his striking stage performances (Riley sings the songs himself, effectively imitating Curtis’ memorable baritone) or recording sessions. Like so many rock stars, he creates his own myth based on myths that come before, determined to be different and original even though, everyone knows, industry machinery cannot brook actual difference.
Just so, despite such occasional strange and impossibly intimate reveries (this is how Curtis sees himself, looks at his father, and ponders grey Manchester), the film lapses frequently into biopickish shorthand. Working at the Unemployment Office, he sees a girl have an epileptic fit, leading to the discovery of his own epilepsy and also to his penning of the song “She’s Lost Control.” When he and his young wife Debbie (Samantha Morton) have a fight, he writes “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Repeatedly, the film’s Curtis goes through plot motions: he meets bandmates Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) and Peter Hook (Joe Anderson) at a Sex Pistols concert. They team with Stephen Morris (Harry Treadway) to form Joy Division in 1977, go on road trips and sign with a manager Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbel). Curtis meets journalist and translator Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), with whom he has an affair.
The girls in the film are predictably symbolic, embodiments of Curtis’ conflicts. Debbie, frequently depicted with baby and laundry, remains his emblem of domestic security and, as made utterly plain here, dingy disappointment. Annik is stereotypically glamorous and doting, the forever fan who comes along on every road trip, the beauty who gazes on him from the bobbing-and-throbbing crowd. Debbie finds out, leading to quarrels and guilt and reckless lies. “It was hard to get to a phone,” he murmurs, not really caring whether Debbie believes him. When he suggests it’s okay if she wants to “sleep with other men,” she’s horrified, not only because it confirms her fear that he is indeed having an affair, but also that he finds this roundabout way to tell her, a way that involves dismissing her fundamental faith in him. The scene, shot on street outside their home, ends with her frumping out of frame, his dawdling behind her, alone, indicating his lack of language, empathy, and will. He doesn’t want to make a decision, and the film doesn’t delve into why.
Through all the clichés, though, Control does offer insights, mostly into how clichés work, how rock stardom is ever reiterated. You could say that this parallel narrative is up against it, as it revisits an era quite cleverly deconstructed in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. But, like the Bowie-reverie scene in baby Curtis’ bedroom, invocations of the “boys” watching TV or appearing on Tony Wilson’s (Craig Parkinson) Granada Reports and signing to his label, Factory Records. Throughout the manufacturing process — the interviews and the performances — Curtis appears reluctant but intrigued, not so much committed to stardom (he hangs himself on the eve of the band’s first American tour) as going along.
The film’s examination of Curtis’ seeming passivity “from a distance” grants his mythology — as damaged, resistant rock star — a kind of nostalgic weight. The damage is carefully framed: the suicide takes place off screen, as does Debbie’s reaction to finding the body, her screams coming from within their modest Manchester home, before she bursts into the street, her pain the sign of his enduring mythology. And the resistance is made romantic: if this Curtis articulates a rather conventional opposition to pop stardom (“They want more, they expect me to give more”), beyond Curtis, stardom remains mystified and implacable, a function of genius and singularity, a cover-up for the deals and machinations that make it go. In this sense, the notion of “control” is key. Lacking control of his body, Curtis gives up control over his career and his life. It’s the rock star bargain.