Perhaps embarrassingly for a devotee of all things indiepop who has spent the best part of fifteen years living in Manchester, the whole Joy Division thing seems to have passed me by somewhat. Indeed until Thursday, my knowledge of these central figures to the cultural rebirth of my adopted city could be summed up as follows:
1. They named themselves (allegedly) after a division of Nazi stormtroopers.
2. They sang 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' (which has been played at two-thirds of the discos/club nights/weddings I have ever attended so I must have danced to something like 230 times).
3. Their singer, Ian Curtis, was an troubled epileptic who killed himself while the band was at the peak of its powers.
Given this less-than-sunny backdrop, it might be imagined that any film telling the band's story might make for pretty gruelling viewing. If we factor in the work being shot in black-and-white largely on location in Macclesfield, and adapted from an unflinching memoir written by the singer's widow and telling of the couple's all-too-brief courtship and marriage, we might hesitate to enter the cinema foyer at all for fear we would come out and throw ourselves directly under a bus.
The viewer who overcomes these misgivings for long enought to pay for a ticket to catch Anton Corbijn's film 'Control', I am happy to report, will be rewarded with 120 minutes of surprisingly life-affirming fare. Much credit here must go to Debbie Curtis, the teenage-sweetheart-turned-widow from whose acclaimed autobiographical work ('Touching From A Distance') the film is wrought . We see how the young wife finds herself increasingly left on the periphery by the band's growing entourage as the pressures of fame take their toll. Debbie (played with empathy and restraint by Samantha Morton) is shown quite literally holding the baby in a crumbling Macclesfield terrace while her newly-famous husband embarks on a European tour- and an intense affair with an alluring raven-headed Belgian fanzine writer which leads, just before the singer's suicide, to the couple's seemingly irrevocable estrangement.
In less able hands the raw material to hand could have led to a one-sided work portraying Curtis as an unfeeling rogue happy to sacrifice family life at the altar of beckoning stardom. The truth, of course, is somewhat more nuanced, and it is to the credit of all concerned that the iconic singer is shown for what he surely was: a fragile, troubled young man whose inability to cope with sudden fame, allied (it is suggested) to the side-effects of medication intended to alleviate a worsening medical condition, led him to turn in tragically on himself- the deepening psychological trauma only vaguely understood by those around him, who can only stand helplessly by as their young friend disintegrates before their eyes.
The film's last, heartrending scene- in which Debbie runs screaming out of the couple's terraced home, having discovered her husband hanging from the washing line, is one which lingers in the memory. The preceding 120 minutes, however, offer much in the way of bleak, black, unabashedly Northern humour. Some of this comes in the form of good-natured jibes at the real-larger-than-Mancunian-life figures portrayed. Anthony H Wilson, a bordeline insufferable wannabee fop sporting a Wildean cravate throughout, falls into a faint after being bulldozed into signing the band's Factory Records contract in his own blood-then is forced to squeeze out another drop as the band's savvy manager spots a slight misspelling in the drummer's surname. Bernard Sumner is nervous before an early TV appearance which is being recorded for release on vinyl: 'We're going to be on a record, lads- I'll be able to play it round me Gran's and everything!' There is a running joke based on Peter Hook's insistent indifference to contemporaries the Buzzcocks, on account of how he 'can't see how anyone would want to call themselves 'Cocks. I mean it's just not right''.
This lightness of touch keeps us engaged as the story takes ever darker turns. Curtis- the days when Joy Division was just an enjoyable diversion from a dayjob at the Macclesfield Employment Exchange a distant memory- is gripped by fear, loathing and possibly the onset of another epileptic episode, and finds himself unable to take to the stage. Manager Rob Gretton (played outstandingly by Toby Kebbell giving vent to a repertoire of foulmouthed wisecracks) wavers between concern for his ailing comrade and horror at the likely price of refunding a room full of expectant punters on the verge of riot. 'Just take as long as you need mate', he whispers. A beat, then more urgently as the sounds of full-scale chaos filter through to backstage : 'How long do you need?'.
This ten-second scene is shot with a surehandedness emblematic of the piece as a whole, which belies former advertising man Corbijn's status as a debut director of full-length features. Aside from the already-mentioned Morton and Kebbell, he is aided in his endeavours by lead player Sam Riley, whose portrayal of Ian Curtis captures every last verbal and physical tic of the tragic performer's extensive repertoire. That much-imitated Curtis dancestep- an arms- akimbo, glazed-eyes hiking- on- the -spot affair that would be franky comical if we did not now understand its eccentricity to be likely the result of low-level onstage fits- is captured with such unnerving accuracy that the film's musical scenes could be lifted directly from contemporary video footage of the band in their prime.
These riotous interludes- featuring not only the anthemic 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' but also other less celebrated numbers- contribute to a film which forms a fitting tribute, not only to Ian Curtis, but to the whole Factory Records brotherhood- Wilson, Hook, Sumner et al- who contributed so directly to the re-invention of Manchester as a production-line for cultural phenomena of global significance. 'Control' stands comparison with the best work to emerge from that perpetual industry in human creativity.