He’s lost control

Joy Division singer’s biopic a gorgeous unsentimental portrait

Musical biopics are generally reserved for household names and have in the past few years at least seemed to be as much an exercise in CD marketing as anything else. How many people who had never heard more than "Hit the Road Jack" now own Genius Loves Company or at least the motion picture soundtrack?

Anton Corbijn’s directorial debut Control stands apart for many reasons. First of all it tells the story of Joy Division’s ill-fated singer Ian Curtis who is an icon to a couple of generations worth of underdogs but whose music has not become a staple of classic rock radio or been overplayed in commercials for cars or computers. Secondly filmed in lustrous black-and-white it is a singularly beautiful film. And lastly based on the biography Touching from a Distance by Curtis’s widow Deborah the story paints a portrait based on the subtleties of real life over alt-rock mythology showing Curtis as neither hero nor villain but rather as a complex individual who made great music if not the best decisions.

Casting an unknown as Curtis was an inspired decision. While Sam Reilly brings the intensity — and the cheekbones — to the role he doesn’t bring a career’s worth of other roles to colour the audience’s perception making it easier for him to disappear completely into the role. Samantha Morton ( Morvern Caller Sweet and Lowdown ) plays wife Deborah with a stiff-upper-lip stoicism that is both frustrating and moving as she stands by her man even as he extracts himself physically and perhaps more painfully emotionally from their marriage.

Beginning with Curtis’s teenage obsession with David Bowie Control is much more the story of the man than the band. That said there are still numerous scenes showing Joy Division onstage and in the studio showing how the stress of performing affected Curtis’s epilepsy and also driving home how incredible the band’s live performances were. These scenes speak volumes about Curtis without resorting to the usual biopic melodrama.

The only missteps in this otherwise excellent movie come toward the end. The first is a mere quibble: there’s a scene moments before Curtis decides to end his life that finds him sitting in a pub. The music playing is The Velvet Underground’s "What Goes On?" While it’s historically improbable that a pub primarily patronized by middle-aged and older men would be hip enough to play this song it’s even worse if Corbijn was intending the lyrics to be a key to what Curtis was feeling. While the song says "You know it will be all right" Curtis looks muddled and anguished. It’s one of the film’s few heavy-handed scenes. The other one is when Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) hypnotizes Curtis to try to get to the root of his problems. As all his relationship woes come flooding out we have to endure hearing snippets of the movie we’ve just watched. It does nothing to move the film forward and makes it seem like Corbijn doesn’t trust his audience’s ability to understand that Curtis’s life wasn’t easy. However the offending scenes are brief in a movie that is otherwise a beautiful and unsentimental look at a talented individual whose life over at 23 was far too short.