The kids who grew up in the '90s had the haunted Kurt Cobain; my generation had the tormented Ian Curtis.
Touching from a DistancePublisher: Faber and Faber
Author: Deborah Curtis
Display Artist: Ian Curtis, Deborah Curtis
US publication date: 2005-02-17
Growing up, Ian Curtis was my tragic hero. He made dark, introspective music and, true to the mythology we apply to our heroes he died young, in heartrending fashion. I went to school with Joy Division plugged into my ears and had the lyrics to She’s Lost Control scrawled on the back of my notebook in black magic marker.
My sister and I were so enamored of the man that we told our friends our parents had hired a new butler named "Curtis". She frequently answered the phone in a deep, robotic voice while vacuuming or doing dishes, much to the surprise of confused friends. Perhaps it was our way of making Ian a part of our family.
Yes, we were silly teenage girls, but the dark mystery and tragedy surrounding Joy Division’s music and lead singer, who hung himself at 23, were perfect fodder for our teenage angst. The kids who grew up in the '90s had Kurt Cobain; we had Ian Curtis.
In 1995, when Debra Curtis published Touching from a Distance her account of being married to Curtis, my sister read it and warned me that the book wasn’t a romantic account of our hero. Instead, it revealed a man who was haunted by his own teenage heroes, hungry for fame, obsessed with suicide, and a lousy husband and father.
Her review put me off the book for years. I didn’t want to know the truth. I wanted to keep the quixotic image of the lead singer that I had kept so close to my heart as a kid. When renowned Dutch music photographer, Anton Corbijn began work on Control, a film about Ian Curtis based on Deborah Curtis’ book, it stirred my interest. I began hearing mixed reviews about it from other hardcore Joy Division fans and initially stayed away.
Finally my curiosity got the better of me and a few weeks ago I rented Control, which had been released in October of 2007. Despite, *gasp* watching the film before reading the book, I was rewarded with a beautifully-shot biopic about Curtis’ rocky marriage, his affair with Belgian mistress Annik Honoré, his struggle with epilepsy, and his eventual suicide.
Corbjin is no stranger to Joy Division. He took some photos in the final weeks of Curtis’ life that weren’t made public until after Curtis’ death. Among the photos is the famous shot of the band in a tunnel with their backs towards Corbijn, all except Curtis whose face is ominously turned toward the camera. Corbijn also directed the 1988 video for Atmosphere, which pays homage to Curtis by depicting black and white hooded figures lugging oversized photos of the singer through a desert.
Corbijn shot much of Control in Macclesfield, England where Curtis was born and raised as well as at the actual house where Curtis lived with his family as a youngster. Because it’s shot in black and white, the movie not only captures the essence of Joy Division (most of their photographs were black and white), but it also helps depict the industrial and gloomy spirit of Northern England in the late '70s, particularly Manchester, where the band would make the music scene famous.
Sam Riley, whose acting career before Control was somewhat limited, portrays Curtis. In the DVD’s extra features, Corbjin says that when he first met Riley, he was standing and smoking his cigarette in the same manner Curtis had been when he had met Joy Division for the first time.
Indeed, the corporeal similarities between the two men are apparent but not overwhelming. Riley has a much softer look than Curtis had. Curtis possessed a physical intensity I doubt anyone could truly duplicate. His eyes were ice blue and frantic. Despite the daunting job before him, Riley captures Curtis’ mannerisms and desperate energy so well that at times I forgot I was watching a movie and thought I was really watching Ian Curtis’ life unravel.
I wasn’t the only one so impressed. Riley earned himself numerous awards for his role, including one from the London Critics Circle Film Awards and one from the British Independent Film Awards.
Samantha Morton was nominated three times for her outstanding performance as put-upon wife, Deborah Curtis. Likewise, Corbijn won numerous awards from the likes of The Cannes Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards. Additionally, Toby Kebbell’s very funny performance as the band’s snarky manager, Rob Gretton, won him the Best Performance of a Supporting Actor at the British Independent Film Awards.
The other band members -- Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook (Hooky), and Stephen Morris -- were played by James Anthony Pearson, Joe Anderson, and Harry Treadaway, respectively. While the film wasn’t as much about Joy Division as it was a study of its lead singer, the performances by the actors playing the other band members were excellent. All four men, including Riley, actually learned to play the songs and performed as a band while shooting the film. While not quite as deep, Riley’s voice in some places sounds eerily likes Curtis’.
Corbijn based most of the film on Deborah Curtis’ book, but also had input from Curtis’ mistress and the band. He told the New York Press:
“To find Ian’s story, we interviewed the band, Ian’s girlfriend Annik and other people who knew him. In the end, they all supported the script. For Debbie and Annik, they’re not ecstatic because what happened is still raw for them, but I think they’re both OK with the film. I wanted to keep it truthful, and I feel that’s what we’ve done.”
The reception from those who were depicted in the film has been mixed. Morris, the band’s drummer, has said good things about the film, but has also said the story was fabricated: “None of it’s true really ...The truth is too boring.”
Despite perhaps stretching the truth for entertainment’s sake, the film does illustrate much of what Deborah Curtis writes about in her book. The film doesn’t skip important details such as Ian’s day job as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer, his affair with Annik, the epileptic fits on stage, and the birth of his and Deborah’s daughter Natalie, who was only one-year-old at the time of her father’s death.
Interestingly, Natalie and her mother were involved in the production of the film. In an articled written for the Guardian in September 2007, she writes that she and her mother visited the set many times and that it was strange to watch her family made into film characters. In her article, titled “A Divided Joy”, she writes:
“My main criticism of the film is that it doesn't go far enough to convey my father's mental health problems: his depression and mood swings are simply not addressed. Given the fervour to discover why he killed himself, this is something of an oversight…”
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control
If you didn’t already know the story of Curtis’ suicide, when he actually does hang himself in the film, it might come as a surprise. It doesn’t seem planned at all. Essentially, the film blames his suicide on epilepsy and a medication mishap.
These difficulties are addressed in Deborah’s book. Deborah writes that his fits were severe and frequent. He regularly had grand mal seizers back-to-back. The film doesn’t show the severity of the fits, probably due to time constraints, but the film also doesn’t depict what Deborah says was her husband’s preoccupation with dying young and his erratic, moody behavior.
She writes about very strange moments that Ian suffered occasionally and would never discuss. For instance, she describes the bizarre reaction he had after she played a trick on him by jumping out and scaring him on his way out of their bathroom:
“I was stunned when he scurried on all fours to a corner of the landing and cowered there , whimpering. Seconds later he was up on his feet again. He descended the rest of the stairs as if nothing had happened..."
It's moments such as these that make his suicide more understandable. Probably the severity of the seizers coupled with many medications didn’t help Curtis’ depression. Deborah says the signs were there for everyone to see – the obsession with suicide, the breakdown in communication, and the bleak lyrics -- but that Curtis was a master at disguising his true unhappiness, even to her.
She writes: “When someone close to you needs that kind of help, it’s very difficult to recognize and even harder to admit.” This doesn’t mean Deborah didn’t try to help her husband. In the book she writes that she pushed hard to get him help with his seizures and with his mental health. But ultimately he convinced everyone, even after previous suicide attempts, that he was fine. His death on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour (18 May 1980) took everyone by surprise.
Peter Hook is quoted as saying, “…I couldn’t believe it. He must have been a pretty good actor. We didn’t have a bleeding clue what was going on.” Rob Gretton is quoted on the next page as saying, “The week before, we went and bought all these new clothes; he was really happy.”
Granted, we never get to hear Ian’s story from Ian and can never truly know what was going on inside his head. All we have are the accounts of those he was closest to, in this case his wife, who saw a side to her husband that others didn’t see. She writes, “I believe Ian chose his deadline. It was important to keep up the charade in front of the band...”
While the movie is a beautiful film about a brilliant man with epilepsy, it is lacking in depth when compared to Deborah’s book, which sheds more light on the mood disorder he suffered from. I feel that if I had read the book before watching the film, I may have liked the film less for this reason. But ultimately, I believe the two complement each other beautifully.
Last month, Ian Curtis’ gravestone was stolen from Macclesfield Cemetery. Next to his name and the date of his death, it simply read “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Deborah, who erected the stone, has admitted to being “in a state of disbelief and shock”, and Stephen Morris has said: “I can’t understand what has happened to the stone but it’s an awful thing for someone to do.”
The marker was recently replaced with a new one bearing the same message. While it’s an absolute shame that anyone would do such a thing, the one thing that can’t be stolen is the oeuvre Curtis left behind – the incredible and influential music.