Grant Gee’s documentary Joy Division covers the all-too-brief history of the eponymous post-punk band from Manchester. Joy Division was tragically short-lived, only completing two albums before lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980, but disproportionately influential. Their sound is all over the early U2 albums Boy and October, and the contemporary band Interpol made a career of emulating Joy Division’s sound.
Gee sets the scene of late 1970s Manchester as a grimy hellhole in which “there’s nothing pretty.” The core members of the band are perversely inspired by a Sex Pistols concert (their review: “shite, a car crash”) to form their own band. Photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn took some of the most memorable portraits of the band. Used to Holland’s health care system, he was shocked to see such poverty in England. He describes Joy Division as undernourished and shivering in their thin coats.
Gee also interviews Peter Saville, the graphic designer that created the remarkably stark album sleeves that were almost as influential as the music itself. Tony Wilson (a colorful character who was the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s fantastic biopic 24 Hour Party People) was an early champion, in between his duties as host of the TV show “So It Goes” and Factory Records impresario. Curtis’ widow Deborah does not seem to have participated, but her side of the story appears in the excellent biopic Control (read The Dork Report review), co-produced by her and directed by Corbijn.
Curtis is described as a regular lad who frequently bought flowers for his wife. In other words, the opposite of punk. But he’s also characterized as “bipolar,” moody and unpredictable even before his epilepsy manifested itself in frequent, dramatic grand mal seizures. His singular stage presence was marked by a peculiar form of dance inspired by his seizures (that he sometimes actually did experience on stage). The necessary drug treatments caused huge mood swings, further compromising his already unsteady mental health. Curtis continued his day job assisting disabled people for the Civil Service even as the band was taking off. In a heartbreaking bit of synchronicity, his classic song “She’s Lost Control” is about an epileptic girl he met though his work.
Grant Gee’s clear expertise is musical documentary. His 1998 film Meeting People is Easy famously captures Radiohead breaking through to mass popularity as their 1998 album OK Computer is almost universally declared the album of the year. The frank film shows emotionally fragile Thom Yorke almost physically recoiling from fame, but receiving wise counsel from mentor Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Gee also co-directed the excellent 2005 Gorillaz concert film Demon Days Live at the Manchester Opera House, better even than the studio album that preceded it. Both films have permanent spots in The Dork Report’s DVD shelf.
Control is one of the very few rare musical biopics to ever appeal to me, even though I am only barely familiar with the music of Joy Division, and even less so of the history of its tragically doomed lead singer Ian Curtis. To testify to the film’s power, I immediately purchased The Best of Joy Division right after watching the movie. Listening more deeply to them for the first time, I’m struck by how much influence they obviously had, most obviously Interpol but also no less than U2 (especially their first three albums, and in Adam Clayton’s bass playing particularly).
Control begins with Curtis (Sam Riley) as a young lad in 1970s Manchester, absorbing all the rock star lessons that are there to be heard in David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. He applies androgynous glam-rock makeup modeled after Bowie and Brian Eno, pops pills (ironic, considering the wide cocktail of drugs he’s later legitimately prescribed when his epilepsy manifests), writes anguished poetry, and sees the Sex Pistols live in their prime: “they were crap.” But his own band Joy Division creates a genuine new sound, a world apart from glam or punk. They seize the attention of Manchester music scene maven Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) with a hand-scrawled note reading “JOY DIVISION YOU CUNT,” hand-delivered immediately before a scorchingly intense live set. Wilson, himself immortalized by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant biopic 24 Hour Party People, becomes their greatest advocate, literally signing their contract to Factory Records in his own blood.
Curtis’ fame came before the comforts of money. He found himself on the covers of magazines, offered a tour of America, and desired by exotic women while still reliant on a depressing desk job and tortured by his own ambivalence towards his young family. Samantha Morton plays his wife Deborah as a shy, overly trusting girl. The real Deborah was later to write her autobiography and co-produce this film with Tony Wilson.
Director Anton Corbijn is most famous for his music videos and portraits, including the iconic The Joshua Tree sleeve for U2. Even though this is his first feature film, he is intimately experienced with the art of capturing rock (and rock stars) on film.
Being an unapologetic iPod/iTunes addict, I’m not too ashamed to announce I just finished ripping all of my R.E.M. cds. So this is blogworthy exactly how, you ask? Well, I was moved to post here because, all told, it amounts to over 28 hours of music. 28 HOURS! Isn’t that amazing? On second thought, I suppose one could say that a day’s worth of songs isn’t that much considering the band’s recording career is at least 20 years and running. But I’m sure there’s a completist out there with every soundtrack, b-side, and bootleg whose pile o’ R.E.M. MP3s reaches into not days but weeks.
Part of my iTunes obsession involves rating every track (seeing as how I’m constantly ripping more cds, it’s also a sisyphusean Big-Dig-type job). So a quick glance at my track-by-track ratings betrays my favorite albums, in rough order: Document, Life’s Rich Pageant, Up, Monster. Least favorites? The two most recent: Reveal and Around the Sun. What happened after Up? I know that album isn’t well-regarded, but personally I love it for its flaws and honestly, its weirdness. It’s their first album after drummer Bill Berry left the band, and it shows them reaching for a new sound. Perhaps the touches of electronica are a bit dated (Bowie and U2 have also left much of that behind by now), but I like it. Unfortunately, the identity they chose is to follow up on the tone set by the most bland song on Up, Daysleeper. It’s the sort of jangly ballad R.E.M. can dash off in their sleep. It lets the album down, and it’s a real bummer for the next two whole albums to share that feel. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll buy the next one to see if they jump off the cliff again.