Grant Gee’s Joy Division

Joy Division movie poster


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.

Joy Division by Anton Corbijn
Mal­nour­ished and shiv­er­ing in their thin coats: a famous por­trait of Joy Divi­sion by Anton Cor­bi­jn

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.

Ian Cur­tis of Joy Divi­sion

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.

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