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Friday, July 4, 2008
  DVD Review: Control

Control is the story of Ian Curtis, lead singer for the seminal British post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980 after releasing just two proper albums. (The better known, more synthesizer-heavy New Order formed later that year from Joy Division’s ashes; they actually scored the movie.) It marks the feature film directorial debut of photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, and it’s not only impressive as a first-time filmmaking effort, it’s one of the best music movies I’ve seen.

I should begin by saying that going into Control, I had very little interest in or knowledge about Joy Division. I’d heard of them and was familiar with a few of their songs (their signature tune, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ is rightly considered a classic), and what little I knew of Curtis himself and his death I gleaned from his brief appearance as a character in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 biopic of Factory Records founder and British music icon Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People (another great little music movie). In that film, which covers a far greater amount of time than Control does, Curtis is a crazy whirlwind who blows into Wilson’s life, promptly becomes his biggest act, then kills himself about 20 minutes later (in film time, not real time). So I’m happy to report that Control is not a movie that requires any prior knowledge of its subject to enjoy (which was one of my knocks against Todd Haynes’ consciously weird Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not Theremy review is here), though at least a passing interest in pop music and musicians in general will probably help.

Corbijn cites Joy Division several times on the DVD as the reason he moved from his native Holland to England in the late ’70s, both inspirationally and more pragmatically – within months of his arrival in the U.K., Corbijn was photographing the band. He later went on to direct videos for bands like U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, Nirvana and Metallica. He brings a similar aesthetic to Control, which is photographed beautifully in black and white (as are many of his videos). Corbijn's music video background gives him a real knack for effectively marrying music and images on screen, and there are several sequences in Control that use music as well as any film I’ve seen. My personal favourite was the scene where, a day after seeing a now-infamous Sex Pistols show in Manchester and having his Bowie-loving mind blown by this new thing called punk rock, Corbijn shows Curtis, in a single-take shot, walk towards the camera from his home to his job down the street while a song begins, with the drums kicking in just as he turns a corner, displaying the word “HATE” scrawled in white across the back of his black coat. It’s the sort of sequence a written description can’t really do justice to, but it’s been in my head since I first saw the film a few weeks ago and I had to mention it.

Corbijn’s sure filmmaking hand isn’t the only thing Control has going for it. It's anchored by a pair of absolutely brilliant performances from newcomer Sam Riley as Ian Curtis, and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah (on whose book, Touching From A Distance, the film is based). Morton, a two-time Oscar nominee, is stellar, and it’s hard to argue with Corbijn’s assessment on the commentary that she's one of the greatest actors of her generation (I’ve never seen her do bad work, though I also haven’t seen her in a movie where she’s not sad and crying in every other scene). The real standout is Sam Riley, and the fact that he’s never been in a film before makes his work here all the more remarkable. The lead in a biopic is always a tough load to shoulder, and Riley does it with aplomb, making a guy who, judged on his actions alone, should probably come across as something of an asshole into a real character I really sympathized with. (Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy not long after Joy Division formed, and evidently viewed the illness – the treatment for which has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1970s – as a kind of death sentence, and the script factors that in to his ultimate decision to take his own life.)

Control is not only a great music biopic; it’s a great movie that has a shot at making my list of the best films I’ve seen this year (though I think it was technically released in 2007; details, details). It announces two significant names to the movie world in director Anton Corbijn and star Sam Riley, and it gave me a new appreciation for a band I previously had only a passing familiarity with. Highly recommended.



The Control DVD isn’t exactly loaded up with extra features, but just about everything on it is quality. There’s a really nice commentary track from Anton Corbijn, in which the soft-spoken director discusses everything from camera movements to working with the actors to his connection to Joy Division. He also explains his reasoning for shooting in black and white (aside from a couple of live performance videos, virtually all photos of the band – many taken by Corbijn himself – are in black and white). The most interesting, and impressive, tidbit of information was the fact that in all the film’s performance scenes, that’s actually the actors themselves playing Joy Division’s songs, including Sam Riley singing (as preparation the actors, many of whom had some kind of prior musical experience, learned to play the instruments and rehearsed together regularly). Perhaps this would have been obvious to hardcore Joy Division fans, but I was astounded when I found out, mostly because these actors pretending to be a band are actually pretty good.

There’s a making-of featurette that touches on the history of Joy Division as well as the development and production of the film, and it manages to cover quite a lot of ground in 20 or so minutes. Separate from that is an interview with Corbijn that runs a bit over 10 minutes that focuses more specifically on the his background and his relationship with the band.

Also included are full versions of three performances from the movie (two of which are dramatically cut down in the finished film), ‘Transmission,’ ‘Leaders of Men’ and ‘Candidate,’ as well as three music videos: the real version of their performance of ‘Transmission’ on Tony Wilson’s TV show So It Goes, as well as the Corbijn-directed video for ‘Atmosphere,’ released in 1988, eight years after Curtis’ death. Watching the original ‘Transmission’ performance was something, considering it’s remade in its entirety in Control. For a Joy Division novice like myself, it was great being able to compare actual footage of Curtis with Riley’s portrayal. There’s also a Corbijn-helmed video for The Killers’ cover of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay,’ done to promote the film, but I didn’t watch it because I fucking hate The Killers. My loathing of terrible contemporary rock bands aside, this is a very nice DVD package for an excellent movie.

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