Biopics are always dangerous territory for any film director; the fact is that real life is actually quite dull, thus biographical films are often prone to being over-dramatised, sentimentalised, and even completely fabricated.
Control, which focuses on the life of Ian Curtis and his band Joy Division, manages to steer clear of these pitfalls. The film closely follows Curtis’s life, from his early years and the rise of Joy Division to the worsening of his private life and internal struggle with epilepsy (with arguably the band’s best song, ‘She’s Lost Control’, based on this), up to his suicide on 18th May 1980.
In many ways the film is the antithesis of the tongue-in-cheek 24 Hour Party People, giving a more realistic and serious view. However, despite its black and white arty appearance – and being directed by ex-NME photographer Anton Corbijn – the picture never glamourises the life of Curtis or the band. Instead the film’s genius lies in how it paints a stunning image of Britain in the late-70s punk years, and the tedium of life in an urban landscape such as Macclesfield. It then cleverly dumps the troubled Curtis right into the middle of it, as he slowly loses ‘control’ of his life. It doesn’t glorify Curtis either, stripping away the mythical; and is honest in its approach, showing Curtis’s affair with Belgian Annik Honoré whilst leaving his wife home alone with a baby.
Alas, the film has it flaws. The first 20 minutes is too confusing and too quick; those with no prior knowledge of Curtis’s life would struggle to keep up. In this ultra-condensed trip through his pre-Joy Division life, Curtis gets married to a girl – Deborah Curtis, whose biography Touching From a Distance is the basis for the film – whom the audience meets only fleetingly beforehand, and then the next second, after meeting at a Sex Pistols gig, Curtis is in the band and recording a single. It all happens far too hastily. Of course, the point is that this part of his life is uninteresting compared to his time in Joy Division, but it comes across as superficial as you never get to know the real Curtis.
Indeed, after the opening few minutes, Control looks to be heading into the classic clichéd biopic direction, as it attempts to force through the idea of Curtis being a strange recluse. The film begins with the depressing opening line of “Existence. Well, what does it matter?”, and then consists of nothing more than angled shots of Curtis lounging around his room, smoking and listening to records, randomly quoting Wordsworth, and casual cutaways to objects such as ‘alternative’ books like J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
Nevertheless, as the film finds its feet, it becomes an artistic masterpiece. Sam Riley gives an inspired performance as Curtis, both as the performer and the vulnerable young man struggling to cope with the mundanity and increasing difficultness of life – which Samantha Morton as Deborah bears the brunt in another exact and brilliant portrayal.
The use of the band’s songs to echo Curtis’s inner turmoil works, without ever being cheesy, as Curtis wrote them – e.g. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – played as Curtis internally struggles between his love for Deborah and Annik. And the brave decision to have Joy Division’s music re-recorded by the actors is incredibly successful, giving it a more realistic feel, evoking the emotion the band’s music should. The first time you hear ‘Transmission’, you know the band are destined for great things.
But there is, of course, the film; this is a story of a fallen star, and a band which could have been huge. The picture has its faults, but overall it’s a beautiful and intimate portrayal – not only one of music’s cult figure – but of one man’s inner struggle to deal with love, illness and life.
Control (2007) is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Momentum Pictures, certificate 15.