The directorial debut of photographer Anton Corbijn, who moved to the UK from Holland to shoot Joy Division in 1979, is a moving tribute to Ian Curtis, but suffers from Corbijn’s proximity to the material.
The problems of rock biopics are pretty similar, all told. Limited in terms of the audience they’ll attract – in most cases, it’s going to be the fans – they have a tendency to truncate facts or omit key incidents for narrative expediency.
A personal peeve is the clumsy way characters are often introduced, or the shorthand used to move the story on. I remember wincing when Ahmet Erteghun was introduced in Walk The Line with, one character effectively rattling off his CV by way of explaining who he was. Or, in The Doors, when Ray Manzerak comes up with the organ intro to “Light My Fire”.
In the latter instance, I guess it’s hard to convey the act of creation, the alchemical moment when a song or a riff is conjured from the air. But, in purely cinematic terms, it’s pretty cheesy, all the same.
Corbijn’s biopic of Ian Curtis, based on his widow Deborah’s book, Touching From A Distance, suffers pretty much from all the above faults.
There’s no satisfying attempt, for instance, to explain the connection – either musically or even socially – between Curtis and the other members of Joy Division – who, it has to be said, are pretty thinly drawn.
What’s the spark that made these four men create all this wonderful music? What’s their shared vision, or their unified sense of purpose? The subject of the film may be Ian Curtis, but you can’t just ignore the crucial elements of his life – the music, which, really, is why most people are going to have any interest in seeing Control.
It’s also pretty hard to care about Curtis. I think Corbijn does is try and portray him honestly. There’s none of the mythologizing here you saw with, say, Morrison in The Doors. But he comes over as a rather glum, introverted adulterer, despite the allowance you have to make for his debilitating epileptic condition. He mopes and broods and generally treats his wife pretty badly. He is a Troubled Soul, sure, but not a particularly nice bloke.
His affair with Belgian girl Annik suggests she was the free spirit who could offer Curtis a way out of the increasingly claustrophobic life he was trapped in. His failing marriage to Deborah, the pressures put on him by the band’s increasing success, his epilepsy. It at least goes some way to explaining his infidelity, and also serves to underline the eventual tragedy of his suicide.
Sam Riley, though, does bring real emotional intensity to his performance. Looking slightly more like Pete Doherty (or even Joy Division’s drummer Stephen Morris), he’s phenomenal in the agonising final ten minutes – just Curtis in his house, on his own – in the lead up to his suicide. It’s not pretty to watch, but Riley goes the distance and Corbijn elicits a fantastic, compelling performance.
In terms of the crime of cinematic shorthand, there’s a couple of major offences. First up, after he learns that a fellow epileptic has died during a fit, Corbijn cuts to Curtis writing “She’s Lost Control”. When he tells Deborah he doesn’t love her anymore, we get “Love Will Tear Us Apart” kicking in over the soundtrack. And, finally, when Curtis is in the studio recording the vocals to “Isolation”, everyone else has their back to him.
Watching it, I was inevitably reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. I know that film took a lot of liberties with the facts, but I felt it at least captured the slightly bonkers, held-together-with-gaffer-tape spirit of Factory and the people involved with it.
Apart from Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton, who does a fine line in one-liners and put downs, no one else stands out. Even Craig Parkinson’s Tony Wilson – one of the music industry’s most larger-than-life characters – isn’t given full rein. And it’s hard to shake the memory of Paddy Considine and Steve Coogan, who were so charismatic as Gretton and Wilson in the Winterbottom film.
Samantha Morton does well as Deborah, conveying a sense of the wife trying to hold everything together and gradually beaten down by Curtis’ illness. But for once of her generation’s best actresses, she’s not best deployed here. You don’t really get a sense of who she was, or even what the connection was, at least initially, between her and Curtis.
The film looks fantastic, of course. It resembles Corbijn’s pictures: grainy, sepulchral black and white, each shot as iconic as the last.
But I think Corbijn is just too close to the material to have enough distance to tell the story in a way that’s going to have a more general appeal.
Of course, I realise that I’m not exactly singing Control’s praises. The reception was fairly mixed at the screening I attended. But I know that Jonathan Romney, who’ll be reviewing the film in a future issue of UNCUT, had a very different opinion to me. I’ll certainly be keen to read what his take is.
Meanwhile, I’d very much like to know what your views are. Are you excited about seeing Control? And what are your views on rock biopics in general? Let me know your favourites – and the ones you think should never have been greenlit.