Moody Musical Biopic Makes For A Good Mope

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
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Dark, gloomy, slow and depressing: You’ve got to give credit to Control for one thing: The film fits its subject matter like a custom-tailored T-shirt.

The deglamorized musical biopic is a portrait of Ian Curtis, doomed leader of legendary Manchester band Joy Division. It’s based on the biography by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s wife during the singer’s short, tumultuous and ultimately tragic life. Apparently, a number of filmmakers have tried to tell Curtis’ story over the years. Until now, no one got the project off the ground. It’s a tough nut to crack. Mr. Curtis didn’t lead a spectacular or particularly lengthy life. And yet, he’s the stuff of rock ’n’ roll legend.

Shot in a washed-out black-and-white style and embracing the sort of kitchen sink realism that Ken Loach all but patented,
Control introduces us to the teenaged Curtis (virtually unknown Yorkshire lad Sam Riley). Malingering in impoverished early-’70s England, Curtis looks for a way of escaping the gray confines of his hometown. In just a few economical shots, former music video director Anton Corbijn captures both the stultifying atmosphere of Manchester and the blissful, rebellious promise popular music offers. Watching Curtis standing in front of his dresser mirror, wailing along to David Bowie, we see the burgeoning rock star waiting to break out from inside every disaffected teen.

Curtis gets his wish within a few years, fronting the local band Warsaw (soon rechristened Joy Division). Joy Divison’s rise to popularity is quickly tempered by Curtis’ ill-advised young marriage to frumpy local gal Deborah (played here by double Oscar nominee Samantha Morton) and by Curtis’ surprise diagnosis of epilepsy. To control his condition, doctors fill Curtis with a cocktail of random drugs, and its not too much of a stretch to imagine the side effects have a detrimental impact on the already unstable musician.

Curtis was a smart, emotional kid, and
Control clearly expresses what music meant to him: a release for all the pain, confusion and dissatisfaction life offered him. In some respects, he followed the usual musical biopic lifestyle: Like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles before him, he got married young, had a kid, then spent most of his life out on the road fooling around. To his credit, though, Curtis doesn’t seem to have done many drugs (other than the ones the doctors gave him), and his biggest problem wasn’t that he was inundated with groupies, but that he immediately fell in love with one Belgian girl named Annik Honoré.

Control spends most of its somewhat lengthy runtime examining a relatively short period in Curtis’ life. As the band comes to slow prominence in England’s punk/new wave era, Curtis struggles with his fame, his physical problems and his utter confusion in the romantic arena. Should he stick with his wife and baby? Should he ditch them for the hot European girl? Or should he just write another poetic song about it all?

Riley sings his own songs, channeling Curtis’ odd onstage spirit to perfection. Hardcore fans can debate whether or not Riley matches Curtis’ dreamy vocal intonation, but at least we’re not subjected to unrealistic lip-synching. Watching the film, you realize just how manic depressive the music of Joy Division really is–at times buoyant and bouncy, at times dark and introspective. It’s not difficult to see how a guy like Curtis would have created such beautiful pain, channeling his life right into his music.

That said,
Control is probably best aimed at already established fans of Joy Division. It’s not that–like Todd Haynes’ recent Dylan biopic I’m Not There Control only rewards those intimately obsessed with the artist’s musical mythology. Quite the contrary: Curtis’ story is accessible enough, and the film elevates basic human drama over blustery onstage antics. But the mopey tone and the nagging feeling that, even at the end, we’re not quite sure what made Ian Curtis Ian Curtis leaves Control a film best appreciated by those already attracted to tales of sorrow, pain, darkness, failure and loss of control.
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