Monday, June 23, 2008

Joy Division: Control

By David Luhrssen
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“Existence? Well, what does it matter?” asks Ian Curtis at the opening of Control. “The past is now part of the future. The present is well out of hand.”

By this time his grip on the present had so weakened that he killed himself on the eve of the first American tour with his seminal band, Joy Division. The English songwriter-singer is the focus of a fictional but fact-based feature movie on his brief and uncomfortable passage through the limelight, Control. It’s out now on DVD.

As played by Sam Riley, Curtis isn’t simply terminally depressed. He’s typical of the smarter set of Britain’s early punk rock scene—intelligent but inattentive in school, an introvert given to reciting Wordsworth and miming to Bowie in his bedroom. The coming of punk in 1977 opened a gateway of opportunity for a young man with a restless imagination.

Director Anton Corbijn, who photographed Joy Division and other British bands in the late ‘70s and went on to direct videos for Depeche Mode and Nirvana, shot control in black and white. The cinematography lends Control the look of an album of well-composed snapshots of a past that seems remarkably distant, or even of a lost art house film from the era. Control works well within its limited budget. Instead of trying to recreate the Sex Pistols for a concert scene, the camera focuses on the audience, dressed as punks and pogoing to the monster beat.

Early in Joy Division’s run, Curtis became afflicted with a form of epilepsy. The regimen of drugs prescribed for the malady carried many potential side effects, including dizziness, drowsiness, nausea and mental confusion—all of which may have deepened Curtis’ already dark inclinations to midnight black.

Joy Division’s music contained an echo of the Velvet Underground and maybe Roxy Music, but sounded highly original against the backdrop of its time. It was composed from dire riffs telegraphing unease in minor keys as Curtis, hands wrapped around his microphone as if it were a missal, intoned warnings about loss of control. Danger lurked everywhere. Even love contained the seeds of its own destruction.

What separated Joy Division from many of their peers was an apparent lack of bitterness or anger at the state of things. Curtis seemed resigned to a world that had fallen from grace. Ironically, Curtis’ death freed his bandmates to become internationally popular. Regrouping as New Order, they transformed angst into melancholy and turned stark urgency into a lusher sound, pushed by electronics and ready to fill the dance floor with the body language of a catharsis Curtis never lived to experience.

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