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.