Ian Curtis, frontman of 70′s British post-punk band Joy Division, is one of rock’s most tragic and elusive figures. In 1980 he committed suicide at the age of 23, at the height of his creative powers. While all this may provide good fodder for music fans and pop historians, it’s a slippery slope of a project for a film director to undertake. With mythology and lionization comes cliché and questionable truths.
Control, based off the memoir of Curtis’ wife Debbie (played here by Samantha Morton), is a beautiful, moving, but ultimately flawed elegy to the late singer. Music video legend turned feature film director Anton Corbijn (Nirvana, Depeche Mode, etc.) shot the entire film on location in stark black and white. Visually, this is a gorgeous and mesmerizing film, but where Corbijn fails is his blind desire to make this a study of one man and one man only, a decision that comes at the expense of nearly every other character introduced, including Curtis’ wife herself (a shameful waste of Morton).
An even bigger, and downright unforgivable, flaw is the misguided and joyless approach to Joy Division’s music. We are forced to watch lifeless performance after lifeless performance (and from the footage I’ve seen, Joy Division was anything but lifeless on stage), the only exception being a show where Curtis actually collapses on stage from an epileptic seizure. The band is only seen rehearsing and writing music once (are we supposed to believe music as powerful and influential as theirs just came out of thin air), and we never get a sense of why any of the other musicians are in the band. Corijn seems to strip every character around Curtis of a personality to somehow amplify the “specialness” of Curtis himself. None of this, of course, does the music and art of Joy Division any justice. And this is coming from someone who’s not even that big of a fan.
Sam Riley, who plays Ian Curtis, is the one shining light. He deftly carries the film through some painstakingly slow plot development and meandering story lines, like Curtis’ other love interest, Annik. The biopic, especially the musician biopic, seems to be a task rarely pulled off, and while this is a noble effort, clearly done with much love and respect to Curtis, it unfortunately falls way short of its subject.