I had reservations about Control, the biopic of Ian Curtis, singer of the seminal sad bastard band Joy Division. While I never knew the specifics of his life other than his suicide on the eve of their first U.S. tour and his struggle with epilepsy, it’s obvious that this film had great potential to further romanticize and mythologize the band and his life.
At its core, Control is the story of a boy with rock and roll dreams who grows up in a boring town, experiments with drugs, and gets the girl. That’s only the beginning though; the real conflict comes from the collision of reluctant fatherhood, issues springing from a premature marriage (the couple married in their teens), epilepsy, adultery, and foreseeable fame. Director Anton Corbijn, known for his rock ‘n’ roll photography and music videos, deserves credit. He doesn’t portray Ian as a rock ‘n’ roll martyr, which would only be too convenient.
At the same time, though, that’s part of the problem of the film. Ian comes off almost inhuman during much of it, rarely expressing any thoughts that give us any perception of who he was as a person. Sam Riley earnestly plays the singer, and his body language conveys all too well the undercurrent of angst, but it’s almost like watching Pavlovian responses. He’s conflicted, but seemingly driven by circumstance to reaction. The nuanced emotion and the hyper-stylized cinematography results in some parts of the film being reminiscent of a cologne commercial. The audience wants to identify with Ian, but his wife Deborah Curtis (Samantha Morton) receives much of the attention and sympathy. Part of this may stem from the screenplay being based off Deborah’s book, Touching from a Distance, which reflects a specific perspective.
At its best, Control contrasts the mundane with the exciting, the deteriorating marriage with the rock ‘n’ roll affair. Joy Division’s songs and Ian’s lyrics are recontextualized through their careful placement within the narrative of the film. The moment when Ian sings "Isolation" during a recording session as his mistress Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara) looks on is perfect. “Mother I tried please believe me/ I'm doing the best that I can/ I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through/ I'm ashamed of the person I am.” Afterward, we see him receiving shelter from the rain in a phone booth, simply stating to his wife on the phone, “I told her,” only to then run into Annik’s arms.
Control stands on its own merits as a film and as its own story. However, in carefully treating its subject with conscious detachment, it leaves the viewer wanting for more insight, more substance, and more warmth. But as Ian said to Annik during an interview when they first meet, “Not all of Joy Division’s music is supposed to be beautiful.” Control chronicles the deterioration of a life, and there’s nothing that provides solace except for the music.