Friday, January 18, 2008


Ian Curtis was the lead singer for Joy Division, and he committed suicide at age 23 just before JD's second album was released. He has subsequently become a.....zzzzz...oh, sorry, drifted off there. It may be a side effect of sitting through Anton Corbijn's Control, a biopic about Curtis' life that hits check-your-watch proportions about 45 minutes in. It might also be because the story of the rock star dying young is so cliched at this point that unless you have something to bring to the table besides the usual tropes of sex, drugs and rock n' roll, it's not going to do much to move the needle. There's sex (Curtis cheats on his wife), drugs (Curtis is on a variety of medication for epilepsy, but it isn't recreational junk, so I guess that's a bit of a new twist) and, obviously, rock and roll. Any biopic, but particularly one about a musician, has two difficult tasks to accomplish --- it has to be accurate and on-point enough to pass muster with the hardcore fans, but also enough of an interesting story that it can intrigue non-fans. Basically, the question is why was this person interesting besides his music? I went into the film not knowing a thing about Ian Curtis and knowing only the basics about Joy Division, and as you can tell, Control didn't exactly leave me wanting more. Joy Division fans can watch this film and perhaps see the tragic fate that befell their hero. I watch this film and feel sorry for this depressed poor sod, but that's it. The casual viewer gets no insight into what made Curtis special to begin with since we lack the context of the Joy Division phenomenon. Curtis is, rightly or wrongly, therefore thrown into the same bin as yet another musician elevated to rock stardom after dying young, no better than hacks like Sid Vicious or Kurt Cobain. From what little I do know of Curtis, he deserved a better filmic fate. In fact, actually, he got one in 24 Hour Party People, a 2002 film about the life of Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. You get a much sense of Ian Curtis as played by Sean Harris in maybe 20 minutes than you do in two hours of Sam Riley.

Riley, who looks like a combination of Leo DiCaprio and Kris Marshall and acts like a combination of a sullen Calvin Klein model and Jeff the mannequin from Today's Special (when he isn't wearing his hat), isn't much of an actor. Curtis may well have been an interesting guy, but Riley's one-expression performance failed to explain anything about him. I get that Curtis was in real life a pretty low-key guy. But still, there's got to be more there to work with. One thing Riley did do well was Curtis' famous walking-in-a-circle dance, which is up there with Mick Jagger's rooster, Gord Downie's shaking and Jarvis Cocker's cocksure pointing as the best stage moves in lead singer history. Curtis stood in place while slowly moving his arms back and forth as if he were walking. The best comparison I can give you is imagine if Super Mario was a moody singer from Macclesfield rather than a video game plumber. So Riley at least got one thing right, thus matching him with...everyone who has ever sung a Joy Division song at a karaoke bar.

My friend Sarah hated this entire paragraph.

As a director, Corbijn is a heck of a photographer. The film isn't unlike a photo album in the sense that while any of the individual frames are interesting, after two hours of similarly-framed black-and-white stills, you kind of want Patty and Selma to end the slideshow. It creates a bleak atmosphere that hangs over the film in a too-obviously artistic way. The film wasn't without its moments of humour --- the rest of the band and their manager are basically right out of Almost Famous --- but these moments are so purposely set up as tension-breakers that the wit fails to land. Corbijn is acclaimed for his album coverwork for everyone from Elvis Costello to the Killers to U2 to David Bowie, but when it comes to capturing a mood beyond just, well, moody (maybe 'atmospheric' is the better word), he comes up short.

I seem to have gone the entire review saying nothing at all positive about the film, which is somewhat harsh for a film that was only two-out-of-five bad, not a disaster. The highlight was Samantha Morton's excellent performance as Debbie Curtis, Ian's wife. Morton is one of those actors who disappears into roles so thoroughly that even though her character is introduced in the first five minutes, I spent half the film waiting for Morton to show up before suddenly realizing that she was playing Debbie. Me am smart. Debbie actually carries much of the narrative, which probably isn't surprising given that the film was based on the real Debbie Curtis' memoirs and she was a co-producer of the film. This is one of those rare music films where the role of the rock star's girlfriend/wife is actually given more weight besides being just the rock star's token girlfriend/wife.

So kudos to Morton. Anti-kudos to Control.

1 comment:

RT Murphy said...

Kudos for the no-holds barred review. I think you spent long enough to give a sense of where it worked and didn't, and that's always key. Anti-kudos for ruining the ending by saying he commits suicide (SPOILERS!). ;-)