Control is a bio-pic about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the seminal British post-punk band Joy Division. I recommend it highly to those interested in the world of British post-punk music, gorgeous black-and-white photography, excellence in acting.  I also recommend it to students of the bio-pic genre. 

Many reviewers more qualified than myself have made the case for this movie, so I will keep this brief, but there were a few things of which I’d like to take special note.

1. The bio-pic genre has special demands upon it, the musical bio-pic genre more than others. Most bio-pics resort to cliche, compression and distortion in order to give their stories shape and dramatic thrust: Lincoln knows from the time he’s a boy that slavery is a great injustice and, one day, by god, he will do something about it, Salieri is rabidly jealous of the genius of Mozart, Johnny Cash sees a shoe-shine boy snapping his rag on the street on the way to the recording studio and vows to immortalize the boy in song. Control falls victim to this tendency only once, when we see Ian Curtis struck by the death of an epileptic girl and moved to write “She’s Lost Control.” We see him get the news, look stricken, sit down, pick up a pad of paper, and literally write the words “She’s Lost Control.” Apart from that moment however, Control utterly shuns the conventions of the bio-pic genre. We don’t know where Ian Curtis’s life is going because Ian Curtis doesn’t know where his life is going. Because we don’t know where our own lives are going. (Curtis’s discomfort with the direction of his life, of course, is a key component of the movie and provides its title.) The conventional bio-pic imposes a narrative shape upon life because it generally makes for a “better story,” but always rings false. Lincoln got around to freeing the slaves when all other possibilities for ending the war failed, Salieri was not rabidly jealous of Mozart, and whether or not Johnny Cash literally saw an actual shoe-shine boy snapping a specific rag on a particular street-corner is not the stuff ofdrama.

The problem with correcting these cliches of the form is that audiences crave plot. Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s brilliant movie about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, is one of the greatest biographical dramas you will ever see, but is not a popular favorite. The conventional bio-pic, Walk the Line for instance, conceives of its narrative (“talented hick singer strikes it rich and has trouble adjusting to fame and wealth”) and then tailors all its scenes to serve the narrative. It takes messy, surprising, disorganized life and retro-fits it into mere “plot.” The result is more commercially viable but also dramatically false. The rise to fame of Johnny Cash is not a surprise to us, because we already know Johnny Cash was famous. We know this because we’ve heard of him.

The creators of Control offer very little cultural context for the creation of Joy Division’s music. There are no fights between band members over the guitar solo that would later go on to become famous, there is no scene where the young songwriter takes in the whole of northern British culture and, at the end of the pier on a stormy night, vows to his girlfriend that one day he will shape the anxiety and alienation of his generation into a sound that set the world on fire, there are no scenes of young men being lured by the temptations of the road (scene in Walk the Line: Johnny Cash: “Gosh, that Elvis Presley has so much energy — how does he do it?” Other Guy: “He ingests illegal drugs — be careful about that, Johnny Cash.“)  There is no scene where a smug, supercilious label head says “Songs about William S. Burroughs novels are on their way out, Mr. Curtis.”  There is no scene where Curtis has a fight with his wife, during which he says “I love you” and then she screams, “Ian, love will tear us apart!” and then he says “Wait!  Say that again!”  There is little in the way of delineating the band’s struggle to get to the top — no humiliating failed auditions, no intra-band intrigue, no duplicitous management. There’s this guy, Ian Curtis, he joins this band, they’re good, they play live and excite people, they go on tour. The movie neither promotes nor judges, it merely records, secure that what it records is interesting and compelling by itself.

The ultimate goal of an excellent bio-pic, it seems to me, is to give the impression that your characters are living their lives, and your camera just happens to be in the room at the time. The temptation of the conventional bio-pic script is to have each character live out the thrust of their life story in each scene, so that a movie featuring Thomas Jefferson as a minor character must have him pine for the unfulfilled rights of men and lust after a Negro maiden. (David Mamet sums up this tendency in biographical drama as “Hello, because I am the King of France.”) In real life, people who go around announcing who they are and what they stand for are the most suspicious and false people of all.  People don’t go around acting out the arc of their lives; people wake up and eat and hang out and argue with one another and watch TV and fart and make love and think about things, and those are the scenes that make up the bulk of Control.

2. The casting and acting in Control is extraordinary, down to quite minor roles. I knew nothing about the Manchester music scene of the late 70s, but after seeing the movie I went online to look some of these people up and all I can say is that the movie appears to get them all exactly right. Special creditgoes to the young men playing the band, who not only convincingly impersonate Joy Division in performance but also appear to be actual people in their own right. When I think of a movie like, say, Back Beat, about the Beatles days in Hamburg, what I remember is the Beatles boiled down and reduced to types; Control presents the members of Joy Division as bright, talented, slightly sullen young men with not much to say apart from their music. We’re on the outside of these young men; even in an interview scene, they don’t seem to have much to say for themselves. “Restraint” seems to have been a watchword for the producers of Control, and the fact that this is director Anton Corbijn’s first narrative feature makes it all the more impressive.

3. I can’t help think that the people releasing Control missed a marketing opportunity by not putting the movie out in mid-June. would have made an excellent Father’s Day movie. Dad’s in their 40s could reminisce about their youths, bond with their teenage emo kids, and best of all, end up feeling really good about themselves, because, let’s face it, there were few fathers or husbands more irresponsible or screwed up than Ian Curtis. Married in his teens, a father by 21, Curtis seems to have been opaque to his wife, horrified by his child, remote, withdrawn, passive, secretive and incommunicative to the point of robotic. Some of America’s worst dads could leave Control and feel like Father of the Year. I can see a generation of sullen teens watching Control and then sending their dads heartfelt cards of thanks for not hanging themselves in the kitchen for their moms to discover.

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12 Responses to “Control”
  1. I’m really looking forward to seeing Control (probably on DVD, since the odds of it appearing in Hong Kong cinemas is virtually nil).

    In terms of avoiding the music biopic syndrome, how would you compare Control to something like Rude Boy?

    • Todd says:

      Gosh, I really couldn’t say, it’s been ages since I’ve seen Rude Boy. It did make me want to watch Sid and Nancy again, though.

  2. zodmicrobe says:

    Totally agree with your assessment, and am further tickled that you’re a fellow TOPSY-TURVY fan. I TiVo’d it from Sundance Channel (it’s out of print on DVD) and am never freaking deleting it.

  3. igorxa says:

    it’s gotta be better than across the universe.

  4. popebuck1 says:

    You’re gonna love WALK HARD when it comes out this winter. It takes out every one of those musical-biopic cliches you mention, and murders them!

    I’m also a huge fan of TOPSY-TURVY; no other movie comes closer to capturing what the creative process in theatre looks and feels like. Plus it’s just sumptuous to look at, there’s all that amazing music, every period detail is as close to perfect as possible, and (as with every Mike Leigh film) every actor creates his performance as though the whole movie’s secretly all about him. Just a staggering achievement.

  5. I’ve always loved Anton Corbijn’s music videos {especially Depeche Mode). And the prospect of his directing not only a movie, but a movie about Joy Division that will obviously feature his trademark grainy black and white shot by shot masterpieces, makes me ecstatic.

    Your review makes me even more so. I can’t wait for Control to get to Atlanta.

    • Todd says:

      The only way I would urge you to temper your enthusiasm is to say that the photography is not as grainy or as high-contrast as Corbijn’s best-known work. He goes for a much more balanced, modulated effect here. It is quite beautiful, however.

  6. dougo says:

    What did you think of 24 Hour Party People?

  7. One of the things I really appreciated about this film was that Corbijn showed us the personal, rare moments of famous people we look up to. Who would have expected during this period of his life that Ian had to move back home with his parents when his career was just beginning to really buzz and his face was plastered on big rock magazines? That kind of little personal touch blows my mind. Obviously, the people closest to him saw these things every day, but to a fan, this is such a personal, intimate look at an entity of perfection that brings down celebrities to a different level. A level that may even be below ourselves.

    (Anton took the picture in my icon, so I’m already a fan of this camera-wielder)

  8. teamwak says:

    I am very interested in seeing this, as I am from Northern England, and although too young for Joy Division was very much a New Order and Factory Records fan.

    I’m interested in seeing this to compare it to 24 Hour Party People (a personal favourite of mine), and compare the portrayal of Curtis and Wilson.

    A sad story and a very troubled man.

  9. gogogh says:

    This is Corbijn’s first feature-length film right?

    It sure was pretty, but lacked a lot of content and not in a profound way.

    But really, it seems like Ian Curtis wasn’t very interesting aside from his struggle with epilepsy and they didn’t really delve into that internal struggle much at all.