Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Kebbell, Craig Parkinson, James Anthony Pearson, Harry Treadaway
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Biopics of famous musicians have a tendency of telling the same story over and over, with only the faces and music changing. The artist rises from humble beginnings to become successful and famous, only to see that success and fame lead to a fall from grace due to over-consumption, then the artist recovers from his or her demons to experience a comeback. Part of the problem is that the story is as old as the music industry, another part of the problem is that movies don’t tend to get made about artists who made great albums while remaining relevant, well-adjusted people.
Anton Corbijn‘s biopic Control, based on the life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, is able to break free from the standard, Behind the Music style of storytelling for the simple reason that Curtis’ life didn’t mirror those of Johnny Cash or Ray Charles. He did come from humble beginnings, marrying his high school sweetheart Deborah Curtis (who is a co-producer of the movie, with her biography, Touching from a Distance, the basis for the screenplay of Control) while they were both teenagers. He joined a band that would become Joy Division, who started to gain recognition in the underground Manchester music scene, but never achieved large amounts of fame or success. Just as the band was to embark on their first U.S. tour, Curtis committed suicide at the age of 23.
Since Joy Division didn’t follow the same arc as most bands receiving biopics, Corbijn (an acclaimed music video director and photographer making his feature film debut in a movie he self-financed) has to rely on different tricks to tell the story. The first being the choice to present the movie in black and white (he filmed in colour, then converted it to black and white), an excellent choice given the sombre tone of the band’s music. I’ve always felt their music existed in a world without colour, so the atmosphere of the movie is very appropriate. Newcomer Sam Riley is great as Curtis, giving an assured performance both while impersonating Curtis’ manic stage presence and while showing the quiet intensity of Curtis’ private life. Samantha Morton is sympathetic in her role as Deborah, playing a role ten years younger than herself while infusing the role with the necessary naivety and vulnerability.
As a Joy Division fan, it was pretty exciting to see the performances of some of their best songs while showing the behind the scenes moments that made them possible. The actors performed the songs themselves, helping them bring the performances alive, and did so ably (other than the fact that Riley can’t match Curtis’ baritone). So I enjoyed the movie, as it would be difficult for me to not get into a movie that plays a Joy Division song every few minutes.
That said, I’m not sure it has a lot to offer for non-fans, other than a couple strong leading performances and some stunning images by Corbijn. In attempting to portray Curtis as an ordinary bloke, Corbijn sometimes forget to show what made his music so extraordinary. True, he was more famous posthumously than he was when he was alive, but that didn’t change the fact that he was enormously talented, and the movie could’ve done a better job representing that than simply playing his songs (which is probably enough for converts, but for the average viewer, a bigger deal should have been made).
As a quiet portrayal of tortured genius and interpersonal strife, Control is a solid effort, a quiet movie with a lot to offer for those already interested in the subject matter. As a means of introducing Ian Curtis and Joy Division to the world, it could do better.