Y’know, I felt expectedly sad but still in control throughout Grant Gee’s documentary about Joy Division—long one of my favourite bands—before finally breaking down and sobbing over a visual pun at the end of it all. Gee had overlaid footage of a New Order performance of “Shadowplay” and footage of a Joy Division performance of same (one shadowing the other, you see) and, my God, what a terrible feeling of loss came over me.
Ian Curtis was gone before I’d ever even heard the band. I was introduced to the music of Joy Division by my friend Peter (who had eclectic tastes and who introduced me to a lot of interesting music) when I was in third-year university. At that time, the band’s dark and brooding post-punk music resonated with me and it has remained very important, very personal to me even though I’ve gone through a lot of changes since then. The intriguing thing about their music is that it just doesn’t sound dated. It doesn’t sound out of place today—nor has it ever, throughout all the years since it was laid into wax. They were way ahead of their time back then and, despite their minimal output, are generally considered a hugely influencial band.
I first heard of Gee’s documentary in the run-up to TIFF07, where it got its world premiere. This film, along with the North American premiere of a dramatized version of the story (Anton Corbijn’s Control) meant that Joy Division was certainly well represented at the film fest. Unfortunately, neither film screened during the few days I attended and—naturally—neither film ever showed up onscreen in the city where I live, so their release this summer on DVD was much anticipated.
I wanted to see the documentary first. Coincidentally, director Grant Gee was the cinematographer of the Scott Walker biography I saw at Hot Docs last year. (And how’s this for odd? The author of that Sydney Morning Herald article I linked to a couple paragraphs ago likens Scott Walker to Ian Curtis and I ran into that old friend of mine who originally introduced me to Joy Division at the Scott Walker screening. Hum the theme from The Twilight Zone here, plz.)
The film features interviews not only with the surviving band members but also managers, producers, music journalists, and various hangers-on–including Ian Curtis’s “other woman”, Annik Honoré, and his widow, Deborah, who does not actually appear onscreen but whose comments (quotations from her book about life with Ian: Touching From a Distance) are included as intertitles throughout the film. But one of the main “characters” in the film is Manchester, itself. The city was bleak and dirty and charmless in the rough wake of the industrial revolution that started there, and at one point guitarist Bernard Sumner says he doesn’t think he’d ever even seen a tree until he got a motorcycle as a teen and was able to get out of the city on it. But as the music scene sprouted and then flowered in the late 70s and into the 80s, the city’s revitalization began and Gee posits that the latter is entwined with the former and Joy Division is at the centre of that renaissance. Interspersed throughout the film are images of Mancunian locations strategic to the band’s history, and they are achingly subtitled “Places that are no longer there”.
Of course, the main thing that is ‘no longer there’ is the one that casts the longest shadow over the film: Ian Curtis, himself, who committed suicide on the eve of the band’s inaugural North American tour in May, 1980. He is the subject discussed by everyone he left and more than once I found myself wondering how differently all these lives would’ve turned out if he hadn’t died all those years ago. Joy Division (including gifted producer Martin Hannett, whose contributions to the band’s sound cannot be overlooked) had a profound effect on music in just that short period of time they were together… As someone points out in the film, before Joy Division, punk music was all about “Fuck you!” but Joy Division said “We’re fucked”. They showed that this new music could be used to express deeper feelings and that is, I think, something very important to remember about them and their musical legacy.
Then, a few nights after I watched Gee’s documentary, as the heartbreaking conclusion of first-time feature director Anton Corbijn‘s Control played out before me, I broke down in tears again. Great wracking sobs, actually.
Control–based on Deborah’s book—is a fictionalized account that is focused more on Ian Curtis than the band as a whole and features a drop-dead-perfect performance by newcomer Sam Riley (with whom I fell madly in love!). Riley not only manages to look like Curtis and move like Curtis, he manages to sound like him too. Riley and the three other actors who play the band members (Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Sumner, and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris) learned to play their own instruments and sing for these roles and, I’ll tellya, if they ever decided to tour as a Joy Division tribute band, they’d be playing to sold-out rooms. They are that good. Samantha Morton is equally wonderful as the put-upon Deborah, who married Ian when they were both very young and bore him a daughter, Natalie (who, according to director Corbijn’s commentary, actually appears in the film as a fan of the band—in the front row of the performance the band gave at Derby Hall in Bury after Ian’s first suicide attempt), weathered his on-and-off affair with Annik Honoré before finally giving up and filing for divorce, and was the one who discovered Ian’s body hanging from the laundry drying rack in their kitchen.
Corbijn is uniquely qualified to make a film chronicling the band. He was one of its chief photographers back in the day. He knew them. And that this is his first feature-length film is astonishing to me, as I found it not only visually stunning but perfectly paced and emotionally engaging, with exquisite performances pulled from his actors. I honestly can’t find fault with anything about it. His commentary on the dvd is quite interesting because he explains his reasons for some of his decisions that made this film so unique. For instance: it’s shot in black and white. Why? Well, he explains, look through the photos taken of the band… They’re all in black and white. Each photographer who addressed the band shot them in black and white. I think the black and white feels more “serious”. It creates (or, perhaps, maintains) a feeling of distance between the photographed and the viewer. The only colour footage of Joy Division is in television and concert film clips. Weird, eh? But photographers just seemed to understand that black and white was the right way to photograph this band. Personally, I love black and white film, and this is certainly one that would, I think, lose visual power if it were shot in colour. I was very interested to hear Corbijn’s explanation of how he understood Ian’s plight… He says that he thinks that Ian’s downfall was that he was trying to please everyone (Deborah, Annik, the band, their fans, etc.) while still trying to please himself. And he found that this was impossible. It seems he only saw one way out.
In the film, during the recording of what turned out to be Joy Division’s last album, Closer, Annik worriedly tells Tony Wilson that Ian really means what he writes in his lyrics. Wilson dismisses her concern, with something like “oh, tut, it’s just art”. But as it turns out, she was right (and Wilson, himself, confirms this story in Gee’s film)…
…and it had to end badly:
In fear every day, every evening
He calls her aloud from above
Carefully watched for a reason
Painstaking devotion and love
Surrendered to self preservation
From others who care for themselves
A blindness that touches perfection
But hurts just like anything else
Isolation, Isolation, Isolation
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
Isolation, Isolation, Isolation
But if you could just see the beauty
These things I could never describe
These pleasures a wayward distraction
This is my one broken prize
Isolation, Isolation, Isolation
→ originally published 2008-08-26