Perhaps the most pernicious myth you come across about Joy Division is the one overshadowed by Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980—which is the band was night to New Order’s day. That Joy Division was dark and morose whereas New Order was sunny dance music. This myth not only distracts from the darkness in New Order’s music, but also eclipses how much Joy Division was fundamentally about rocking out. Actually putting a Joy Division album on and listening to it without thinking about Curtis’ unfortunate end reveals music influenced by the punk scene and by glam and art rock, music that’s incredibly danceable—sort of a less overtly intelligent (and less funky, more punky) kind of Talking Heads in some points. To n00bs, it’s inconceivable that Joy Division could have morphed into New Order with Curtis; to big fans, it’s evident that they already were. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has deeply sad lyrics, but a punchy, cheerful melody. The fascination I have with music of both bands is the way they exploit these tensions.
I say this, because I finally sat down and watched “Control”, a film made by Anton Corbijn (who did some famous photographs of the band during their rise to fame), with Tony Wilson (label manager, and the focus of the movie “24 Hour Party People”) and Deborah Curtis (Ian’s widow) as co-producers. I’ve been wanting to see it for a long time, but always procrastinated because I thought it would be so depressing. Well, it was just as the critics said—a revelatory film, and one that can be, unlike “24 Hour Party People”, enjoyed by people who aren’t as interested in the culture and industry of rock music, or the lives of musicians. You don’t even really have to know Joy Division’s music to find this movie fascinating. It’s because this movie is an honestly drawn portrayal of a young man eaten up by his mental illness as it is a rock biography; it’s one of the most complex, interesting portrayals of this that I’ve ever seen. Plus, it’s one of the coolest movies to look at in forever. It’s hard not to continually marvel at how Corbijn translates his photographic skills to the screen, and the breathtaking black and white cinematography.
It’s also interesting from a feminist perspective, believe it or not. The movie is based on Deborah Curtis’ memoir of her marriage, titled Touching from a Distance. Deborah, played by Samantha Morton in this film, was in the unfortunate position of being, at the time of Ian’s death, both in the periphery of his life and central in his suicide—she was the last person to see him alive, and she was the one who found him dead. He’d come over to the house to pick a fight with her after she kicked him out and demanded a divorce, and the fight got ugly and (according to her), he ran her off. When she returned in the morning, she found he’d hung himself and Iggy Pop’s Idiot was on the turntable. It’s all the events leading up to this that really lend themselves to a feminist understanding. Despite being on the cutting edge of fashion and pop music, Ian was still stuck in the past when it came to how he treated his wife. They married excruciatingly young (19 and 18), and by the time Debbie was pregnant, Ian was already shoving her out of sight into the kitchen, trying to create completely separate spheres between his super-cool rock star life and his domestic life. There’s a painful scene in the film where Debbie shows up hugely pregnant at a show, and all Ian’s bandmates are surprised to see that she’s pregnant; he hadn’t found time in the past 9 months to mention it to his closest friends.
Unlike other rock biographies, which painfully exaggerate their heroes’ misbehavior, in a misplaced attempt to make things interesting, “Control” manages to get its point across with subtlety and complexity. Lesser films would have tried to drive the point across about how dreadfully Ian treated Debbie through shouting matches or overt abuse, but this movie portrays a man more willing to lean on passive aggressive behavior and self-pity. Ian tries to justify his own cheating by telling Debbie she can sleep with other men; when she laughs it off like crazy talk, he quietly says he doesn’t think he loves her anymore. She doesn’t know what to do; the discovery of the cheating ends up being a relief, because now it can all come out. It feels more like real life, including the subtle ways the movie shows how Ian’s bandmates were complicit in his betrayal, due to a combination of minding their own business and male privilege. (Peter Hook has been insistent that this movie is accurate.)
The movie also does one of the most bang-up jobs I’ve ever seen of portraying a descent into depression with accuracy. The image of Ian Curtis as a morbid, morose, gothic figure isn’t accurate in the slightest; as the movie opens, we instead see that he’s a glam rock aficionado who wears eyeliner and worships Lou Reed and David Bowie. He’s got a lot of life and energy and joy (even if he’s not a wordy person), and he absolutely loves rock and roll, but he’s also decent and patient at his day job of helping mentally disabled people find employment. (“She’s Lost Control” is a song purportedly inspired by an epileptic client of Ian’s.) You can see why Debbie fell for him, and why they fell into getting married and having a daughter so young, just due to giddy romanticism. And then it all starts to turn to shit. The movie doesn’t pull its punches in portraying Ian as too immature to handle what happened to him in very short order, but it’s also a lot for anyone to handle: the diagnosis of epilepsy (and the tons of pills taken in an attempt to control it), the birth of his daughter (and the crushing realization that he should have decided “rock star or family life?” before his kid was born, knowing as he does that he’s picking “rock star”), the financial strain as he gives up his job for his band in the hopes the band pays out, falling for his new girlfriend while not wanting to let go of his wife, and of course the band’s rise to stardom.
The actor Sam Riley does a remarkable job of showing how the depression ate away at Ian, turning him from an arrogant punk who blows smoke in Tony Wilson’s face and calls him a “twat” in order to get on TV, to a guy who simply gives up before a big show, unable to go on stage and basically causing a riot with his inaction. It’s really no coincidence the suicide happened right before the band was supposed to go on tour in America; Ian is getting increasingly obsessed with perceived lack of control over his life (and if you’re prone to random seizures, this is an understandable obsession), and he is mortified at the knowledge that blowing up big means losing even more control.
I’ve rarely seen a movie that manages to capture the complexity of depression so well, both demonstrating how fucking annoying Ian was towards the end, and how hard he was to get along with, but also retaining sympathy for his situation, and understanding for why someone might resort to passive aggressive behavior (including suicide) when feeling so overwhelmed. You keep getting frustrated that Ian has so many people in his life, but no one to help him, but then you see how helping him seemed impossible to people, because he pushed away everyone who tried to help him in the slightest. His immaturity is frustrating, but then you’re reminded that he’s immature because he’s so young, and your heart goes out to him. By the end, you’re both devastated at what a waste his suicide was, but also you have a lot more understanding of how these things can just feel like an oncoming train.