You remember Ian Curtis. A delicate soul, that one, the sort of lad who seemed like he’d been born into the dreary north of England—not even Manchester, mind you, but Macclesfield, a suburb thereof—just to reiterate the public dream of getting out of there.
You can picture him—or let Anton Corbijn’s feature debut, Control, do it for you—as a sweetly solemn teenager, reclining shirtless on a bed among his collected records and original literary works in progress, quoting Wordsworth and Bowie with equal appreciation, winning over a sweetly simple girl who will become his wife, waiting to be galvanized.
Well, it happened when he got a glimpse of the Sex Pistols live in ’76 and promptly decided to front his mates’ new band—which then promptly became the gloom-mongering post-punk prototype, Joy Division. Corbijn gives us this formative epiphany, but renders it so obliquely that he almost seems to be hedging. Maybe that’s because it was covered from another angle five years ago in 24 Hour Party People. Maybe it’s because music-maker biopics have been on the brain since then, and Corbijn wants to avoid the stale residue of so-so offerings such as Ray and Walk the Line and La Vie En Rose, let alone the dark shadow of a great one like Sid and Nancy, in which Gary Oldman brought the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious so volcanically back to life. Or maybe it’s just that, in Corbijn’s estimation, obliqueness was the Ian Curtis way.
Which isn’t to say the world went without direct expressions of his inner life. Curtis (portrayed here by Sam Riley, formerly the lead singer of Leeds punk band 10,000 Things) was enough the bookish ironist to name his group after a Nazi brothel, and enough the sensualist and admirer of Bowie and Jim Morrison to synthesize those front-men’s vocal styles into just the coiled-up baritone monotone his band’s deliberate mid-tempo dirges required. Not incidentally, he was epileptic—a beautiful spaz on stage, clutching the mic stand as if to guard against a seizure or literally flailing his arms as if to bring on one (more than once, he did). The music, of loneliness and lament, didn’t really break ground but didn’t bother about that anyway; it felt stark and true and vitally melancholic. And that’s how Corbijn’s movie feels. Even non-fans can groove to it.
If it doesn’t seem to convey the entirety of a life, well, neither did the life. Curtis came to everything too soon. His tentative, too-young marriage (Samantha Morton plays that sweetly simple girl) couldn’t withstand an ascendant creative career—not to mention a beautiful Belgian groupie (Alexandra Maria Lara)—and success only intensified the quandary of self-doubt and indecision. Curtis hanged himself at 23, taking his rueful if grimly rightful place among rock music’s too-early dead. (Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh adapted Control from Curtis’ widow’s 1996 memoir, Touching from a Distance.)
His mates carried on without him as New Order, which sailed the tide of time into synth pop and global celebrity during the ’80s; Curtis’ legacy meanwhile made music safe for the Cure, the Smiths and the subsequent generations of imitators by now so common that a new movie of the Joy Division origin myth seems at once like coolly calculated opportunism and a hotly proprietary elder-fanboy history lecture.
With Corbijn in command, it’s both. He’s as right a man for the job as any, really; Corbijn’s still pictures of the band from 1979 put him on the map as a photographer and an eventual maker of music videos, including a resourcefully retrospective one—assembled from Corbijn’s iconic stills after Curtis’ death—of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” Having illuminated the many dimensions in that vast universe between the flat affect of creative depression and the modish affectation of emo posing, Corbijn manages Control with elegant, understated veneration. It’s actually rather a quiet movie.
Riley is the perfect Curtis—prettier than he should be, but only apparently because that’s how we want to remember him. And thanks to fine work from Morton and Lara, the ladies in his life have immediate but never too-obvious appeal. The actors who play the band actually play the band’s music, and Toby Kebbell offers a witty turn as their slouchy self-made manager.
Like the music, cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s bright, flat black-and-white seems both luxuriating and detached. It splits the difference between the Godardian New-Wave chic that predated those Joy Division years and the fashion-mag chic that followed. If you’re left yearning for all the dark, fleeting beauties that came in between, that’s just as it should be.