Feb 14, 2011


On the eve of his band's first American tour, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis hung himself shortly after watching Werner Herzog's classic German film Stroszek. Maybe the film made Curtis feel even more pessimistic about life, with the possibility of failure in America (just as the protagonists of Stroszek ultimately failed) looming closely over his haunted head. Of course, any serious Joy Division fans knows that Ian Curtis's suicide was a longtime in the making. The lyrics Curtis wrote for his innovating band are truly an expressions of a "dead soul (also the name of a popular JD song)." With each new Joy Division album, the sound and lyrics of the band would parallel Ian Curtis's further psychological escape into introversion and all-around reclusive behavior, eventually resulting in his own self-prophesized suicide. When I found out that Hollywood completed a film entitled Control (2007) about Joy Division and the brief life of poetic singer Ian Curtis, I could not help but cringe. After all, the director of Control, Anton Corbijn, is best known for directing music videos, not to mention the fact that the film was distributed by The Weinstein Company. After reluctantly watching Control, I can report that the film was not nearly as bad as it could have been, but it is no masterpiece either.

The first thing I noticed about Control is that it was pretentiously shot in black-and-white. Joy Division certainly was not a 'colorful' group, so I assume that the director was going for a gloomy aesthetic. Virtually all (if not all) of the artwork featured on Joy Division album covers are also in black-and-white (with shades of gray), certainly complimenting the group's somber music and mournful lyrics.  During his early grammar school years, Ian Curtis was recognized for his talent in poetry, even earning a scholarship at the age of 11 for the prestigious The King's School in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England. Although a talented wordsmith, Ian Curtis was not a serious student and never went onto a university. In Control, the film begins during the end of Curtis's high school days, showing a young man that could never successfully adapt to adulthood. It also becomes apparent in the film that the root of Ian Curtis's creative talents were also intertwined with the deterioration of his psyche. Not only did Ian Curtis suffer from crippling depression and overall psychological misery; he also suffered from epileptic seizures. In fact, as exhibited in Control, Ian Curtis would sometimes have an epileptic seizures during Joy Division performances, in which many people would mistake for his unconventional dance routines. Ian Curtis even wrote a song, She's Lost Control, about a girl that he knew (he was a civil servant that helped handicapped people acquire jobs) that had epilepsy. Curtis later called the girl to find out how her new job was going and was horrified when he heard that she died. Contrary to how it is chronologically portrayed in Control, Ian Curtis did find out that he had epilepsy until after he wrote the lyrics to the song She's Lost Control. For a man that constantly saw death surrounding him, it must have been a nightmarish experience for Ian Curtis when he was diagnosed with epilepsy, only shortly after finding out a young girl he knew unexpectedly died from it. 

Joy Division named themselves after a fictional Nazi-run brothel of Jewish sex slaves featured in the 1955 novella The House of Dolls written by Israeli author Yehiel De-Nur. In fact, the first Joy Division EP An Ideal for Living featured a drawing of a Hitler Youth member on the cover. Due to the band's name and Nazi imagery, people were speculative about Joy Division's dubious political affiliations. Jewish psychoanalyst Eric Fromm described fascists as people that were consumed by the death-drive and "in love with corpses." Although the quack propagandist theory that Nazi's were driven by the desire to die and once again become inanimate is preposterous (to say the least), there is no doubt in my mind that Ian Curtis was driven by the urge to die. As depicted in Control, the better his personal and financial life got, the more worse off Ian Curtis became both mentally and physically. Despite having a wife and beautiful child, Curtis could no live up to being a family man, eventually starting another relationship with a woman from Belgium. Ian Curtis also could not deal with the success of Joy Division, killing himself on the eve of his first American tour and before the album Closer (1980) and the single "Love Will Tears Us Apart" were released, the groups highest charting releases.

Control is not the first film to characterize the rise and demise of Joy Division.  The hyper-cynical film 24 Hour Party People (2002) portrays the death of Ian Curtis as some type of bad English comedy skit. Although Control does a better job interpreting the history of Joy Division and the life of Ian Curtis, it still left me with the feeling that I was cheated out of the definitive Joy Division film. Control is comparable to Oliver Stone's The Doors, as both films are essentially like feature-length music videos that only manage to pay musical tribute to the subjects they portray, but are lacking in depth and substance when it comes to telling the 'real' story behind band. Although he praised the film, Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris remarked regarding Control, "None of it's true really" but somewhat justified the films inaccuracies by stating, "The truth is boring." After re-watching Control a second time last night, I found it much more boring when comparing it to my initial viewing of the film.  Still, the film has some intrinsic value in that offers a good introduction for Joy Divisions novices and forthcoming generations of fans.

-Ty E


jervaise brooke hamster said...

Ian Curtis was a bloody load of old rubbish simply because he was British.

Andrew said...

This sounds intriguing to me. Thanks for the review!