Control: The Legacy of Joy Division

Updated: April 5th, 2015

A few months ago, while browsing through feature films at the local library, I came across one entitled Control. Initially, the movie seems like a biopic about Joy Division, but quickly establishes itself as a portrayal of Ian Curtis, the band’s tragic lead singer.

While reading the synopsis, I developed a sense of dread.
At this point in the game, I only knew so much about the band.
I will list that prior knowledge below.

The Things I Knew About Joy Division:

-They existed sometime in the late 70s/early 80s range, certainly not the 90s
-The 4 songs I have heard, I really really love
-I like the way they dress. Very business casual
-The lead singer has a deep voice
-I have a poster of them on the wall that I like to look at
-Their music complements the film Donnie Darko perfectly
-The lead singer killed himself

The last point brings me to a state of hesitation. I had the unfortunate experience of discovering suicide first hand, and it’s not something I would recommend or typically volunteer to watch onscreen, as most filmmakers have no idea how to handle the material tastefully, if a tasteful depiction of suicide even exists. Knowing the film’s conclusion before it even started, a conflict arose between wanting to know more about the band, and not setting myself up to view disturbing content. Curiosity won the battle as usual, and thus I added Control to my overflowing stack of CDs and brought it home.

For nearly 12 weeks, Control sat next to the bed waiting to be watched. I couldn’t do it. Surprisingly, I was never in the mood to witness someone’s life disintegrate. I renewed the movie four times and incrued several dollars in late fees. (I now owe them roughly $89 for late CDs and won’t be visiting for some time). Finally, I just returned it.
A week later, still sitting on the library shelf…still waiting…I grabbed the DVD and forced myself to sit and watch for 2 hours, well beyond my usual 90-minute-time-limit for films. 92 minutes? Get the hell out of here.

As for the movie, I loved it. Completely.

Although this post got written in a day or two, the process took months.
Coming up with a topic is easy, but discovering what the post is about, at its core, can take forever.
Writer’s block, anxiety, lost sleep, procrastination…these things fuel any decent piece of writing, and I would not exchange them for anything……not even for a bag of tater tots…which would hit the spot about now.

 

Quick note: the post is a bit longer than usual, clocking in at around 2 hours of quality music. So, take your time, no need to rush, take a nap, eat some tots, revisit if necessary, the post won’t be deleted any time soon! It is a lot to absorb in one sitting.

A plethora of good music and information can be found on the next page.
You wouldn’t want to miss it.

I hope you enjoy reading about one of the most innovative bands in existence.

In 1977, soon after the Sex Pistol’s first gig in Manchester, a new energy was forming in the wake of punk music, and the band Stiff Kittens desperately needed a good lead singer. Luckily, they found Ian Curtis by placing an ad in a local Manchester record store.

Without such ‘divine intervention’ as this, Stiff Kittens would very likely go on to become just another (shit) band lost and forgotten in the punk explosion. In one alternate reality, the group never placed an ad, and all members later went into finance instead of changing the entire trajectory of music. In another, they were magicians. With the addition of Curtis, though, the band evolved into something else, calling themselves Warsaw, inspired by David Bowie’s brooding and desolate “Warszawa”, a mostly instrumental track found on his album Low.

David Bowie “Warszawa” (1978, Tokyo)

Despite my love for Bowie, a name like that is hard to market, and eventually…thankfully…the similarly named punk group Warsaw Pakt forced them to become Joy Division.
So thanks for doing your part, Warsaw Pakt! (thumbs up).
I definitely prefer the reality where Joy Division exists.

The name Joy Division comes from a slang term common during WWII, used in reference to concentration camp units that held female inmates who were forced into prostitution by Nazi soldiers. Unfortunately, the band gained a few Neo-Nazi followers as a result. This was far from their intent though, as they probably meant for the name to be taken as more ironic than literal.

Just to be clear, Joy Division was not an organizing force for radical fascism.
They are better viewed as creative, nerdy, introspective, passionate musicians.

I mean, the lead singer dances like a fly, and makes it look cool.

And speaking of his fly dance…
Lets get to the first video!

Joy Division “Transmission” (Something Else, September 15th, 1979)

Something Else was a music-oriented show hosted by TV personality Tony Wilson, who featured sounds from The Clash, the Buzzcocks, Siouxie and the Banshees, and so on. Basically, the program gave bands a space to gain exposure, which seemed to pay off pretty well for most of them.

In other news…

Both Control and 24 Hour Party People, two films that focus heavily on Joy Division, attempt to illustrate how the band snagged a spot on TV.
Ian Curtis, pissed they haven’t been put on yet, approaches Tony Wilson in a bar, calls him a “cock” or something similar, and they end up with the very next gig. Whether or not this is accurate, it is definitely an interesting story, and one that may have lead to an important piece of music history.

-Members-

Ian Curtis-vocals
Peter Hook-bass
Bernard Sumner-guitar
Stephen Morris-drums

Joy Division “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (official video)

Ian Curtis had a lot of love to give. Isolated, brooding individuals often need the most love; they simply require it to survive.
Of those that loved him were: his wife Debbie, their child, and his other love, Annik Honore.

Debbie had ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ inscribed on Ian’s gravestone.

The lyrics seem to illuminate the troubled love triangle Ian found himself in, although they could be interpreted in various ways.

Verse 1:

When routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And resentment rides high
But emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads

Chorus:

Then love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again

Official Control Trailer (2007)

So.

Here we are.

This is the movie that inspired the post.

Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn directed Control, a black and white film released in 2007 that highlights the brief life and death of Ian Curtis. Depicting the content in black and white was a conscious decision, a fact the director confirms in the ‘making of’. The band cast themselves into black and white in terms of identity. Visually, both their debut album Unknown Pleasures and sophomore album Closer contain simple black and white on the cover.
In general, when you think of Joy Division, you don’t think in color, so naturally, the film had to represent the same absence. To make it look as beautiful as it does without having a grainy element, they shot with high quality color film and switched it to black and white later.

The director explicitly states that this isn’t a Joy Division biopic, although many critics and viewers have designated it as such. Control is about Ian Curtis, an individual that Corbijn found fascinating; a person who just happened to have an amazing band. Although the other members are depicted favorably, they almost seem like an afterthought for what he wants to get across.

According to bassist Peter Hook, Control is a hell of a lot more accurate than 24 Hour Party People. I decided to watch 24 Hour Party People the other night, and accuracy aside, Control is a better film. Period. 25% of the movie may be about Joy Division, but the other 3/4ths is about Tony Wilson and Happy Mondays, and…well, I fast forwarded.

One possible explanation for this increased accuracy could be Anton’s past with the band. He did a photo shoot with them at one point, and has remained a passionate fan throughout the years.

Here is one famous shot:

Ian turn around!

Although more realistic, the film is still an interpretation, and shouldn’t be read as a documentary. All creative works have to bend the truth to tell a story.

The best aspects of the film lie in the performances, both in terms of acting and music. Sam Riley does a perfectly haunting job playing Curtis.

He really knows how to brood.

I think it’s the way he makes smoking cigarettes seem kind of pretty.

Don’t smoke guys it’s bad for you

Musically, instead of having already produced Joy Division tracks pumping through the speakers, which forces the actors to lip-synch and pretend to play the drums, they actually learned to play their instruments live. Sam Riley was already the lead singer of a band in real life, and figured he could ‘do the voice’ of Curtis. Playing together as a group, making mistakes, learning, and finally nailing a song all contributed to a band-like camaraderie that the actors wouldn’t have developed otherwise. This gave them the opportunity to actually interact with the music and pass it off as more authentic.

I really love the way it turned out.

Official Control Website

Joy Division “She’s Lost Control” (performance from the film Control)

Ian Curtis worked at a job centre for awhile and met a girl with epilepsy. In the film, he witnesses her have a seizure and fall to the floor convulsing. He wonders if this is where his epileptic condition began. Right before this performance, he finds out she has died from an epileptic fit, and responds accordingly by writing a song.

 

Joy Division “Candidate” (from the film)

After this gig, the band is approached by Annik Honore, a Belgian “journalist” who wants to interview them. It becomes pretty obvious she’s just interested in meeting Ian though. Clever girl.

 

Joy Division “Dead Souls” (also from Control)

Although we see foreshadowing of his condition during other performances, this is the first time it occurs dramatically within the film. The typical jerky mannerisms that characterize his ‘fly dance’ are exaggerated here, making it difficult to distinguish between a seizure and stage presence, blurring the division between performance and severe lack of control. Audience members were confused, concerned, and entertained, uncertain if it was a real situation or part of the show.

The End…?

Joy Division began gaining notoriety and touring throughout Europe.
As they toured, Ian’s fits worsened, and several gigs were canceled due to his poor health. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was released as a single in April 1980.
In May, the band got 2 weeks rest before embarking on their first U.S. tour.
Sunday morning, two days before taking off, 23 year old Ian Curtis was found dead, hanging in his kitchen.
The story goes: he watched a very depressing Werner Herzog film, had a horrible seizure, and decided to kill himself.

As for why he did it, only Ian knows, though he probably felt completely helpless in life. His epilepsy meds had dangerous side effects and were often combined with loads of alcohol. The prescribed combinations he was put on were highly experimental at the time. Also, he probably envisioned his fits getting consistently worse as the years went on.

Romantically, Ian was torn between loving two women, both of them wanting him to make a choice, one which couldn’t be made.
The stress of touring and traveling abroad, only to have a fit in front of bigger audiences, probably didn’t help engender a positive outlook either.

Control actually handled the suicide….creatively, which I can’t believe I’m saying.
A tasteful depiction does exist!
They filmed in Ian’s real Maccelsfield home, in his actual kitchen, and avoided going for the visually graphic and obvious.
It is less about what we see, and more about what we hear, especially since we experience the suicide again as Debbie discovers it, screaming and desperately searching the streets for someone to help.

Joy Division was a band for less than 3 years, yet their small body of work heavily impacts music to this day.
I can’t imagine what could have been accomplished had Ian stuck around.

I really wish he would have.

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2 Comments

  1. Beautiful review and tribute to Bob. We all miss him so much. I am sure this was as hard to write for you as it was for me to read. It was beautiful though!

    Like

  2. I'm sorry this reply is so late, but I really appreciate you reading this, and your very nice comment, so thank you! 🙂 it was definitely hard to write, but completely worth it. Bob deserves much more than this. I was going to post a video of him performing in his band, but I couldn't find any…let me know if you have one somewhere!

    Like

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