Rock legend has it that the good die young – at 27, to be precise. Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison? All dead before 28 candles could be blown out on their hash-cakes. Sadly, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis didn’t even make it that far, 23 being his wastefully early sign-off only two albums into a blistering career. It’s a tragic life fit for film; here brought to us by photographer and friend of the band Anton Corbijn in a glorious, suitably monochrome movie homage.
Back in 2002, 24 Hour Party People gave us the first screen Curtis (played by Sean Harris). Yet in Michael Winterbottom’s superb evocation of the seismic Mancunian music shift driven by Joy Division and New Order he was just another face in the Factory crowd. Control delves deeper, picking out the one player (here played by Sam Riley, physically and vocally) who died in 1980 when his band were on the brink of breaking America.
Corbijn’s debut feature starts with a line from Joy Division’s ‘Heart And Soul’, Riley’s voiceover bleeding existential grief from “The past is now part of my future/The present is well out of hand” as the then-schoolboy strolls nonchalantly through the Macclesfield estate on which he lives, circa 1973. In a blur he’s nabbed his future missus Debbie (Samantha Morton), married her and joined a struggling combo consisting of Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson, worried), Peter Hook ( Joe Anderson, lairy) and Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway, quiet). Initially called Warsaw, the band soon become Joy Division; landing themselves a record deal with Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson, overshadowed by Steve Coogan’s 24 Hour imitation) and a manager in Rob Gretton (Dead Man’s Shoes’ Toby Kebbel, regularly stealing scenes).
With the set-up whistled through, Corbijn narrows his focus, rarely deviating from the Curtises’ fortunes. In this regard, Control succeeds as a kitchen sink drama – albeit one where hubby fronts a groundbreaking post-punk band rather than toiling down the factory. The couple’s relationship is by turns passionate and fraught, finally folding into the latter as effortlessly cool faux-journo Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) enters Ian’s life and he pens ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (used here with breathtaking effect as the Curtises walk away from each other in silence, him wholly emotionless). Throughout infidelities and tragedy Debbie stays loyal – too loyal, perhaps, Morton playing the frumpy housewife as so weak she teeters on dippy caricature. Honest portrayal or not, it makes easy excuses for Ian’s cheating, as the pair seemingly drift further and further into two bubbles.
However, thanks to the music, Control will, for many, be much more than a morose marital melodrama. Few bands are as influential as Joy Division; even fewer have maintained such 30-year devotion. So it’s to the immense credit of the cast that the music on film – played note-for-note by the thesps themselves – sounds so authentically harrowing. Embodying Curtis like some reincarnated marionette, newcomer Riley is a revelation. Everything is in check as he leads the band through live performances of ‘Transmission’, ‘She’s Lost Control’ and ‘Dead Souls’ – absolutely the equal to anything Xeroxed in Walk The Line. For those not around in the late ’70s, it’s as (eerily) close as you’ll ever get.
Meanwhile, what stops Control from being a fandom-only tribute gig is a script packed with wry Brit-wit (“The 50 quid?” scorns Gretton. “It’s in my fuck-off pocket!”) and Corbijn’s photography… sorry, directing. When every shot is lensed strikingly enough to take pride of place on anyone’s wall, the whole film mesmerises. Will those only familiar with ‘Love…’ and at best ‘Atmosphere’ give two hoots? Definitely. Some may find a few set-ups a bit staid, too perfectionist, but this is the work of a director reaching outside his comfort zone and creating a moving picture often as exquisite as any of his stills.
So what doomed Ian Curtis? Even if an unnecessary diversion into hypnotism erroneously hints at other influences, the message here is simple: the dual strangulation of expectation and epilepsy overwhelmed him. He’s already immortalised in music; now, 27 years after his death, this lost boy has a startling visual epitaph all his own.
As touching a biopic as you'll see all year, Control is about the loss thereof. Riley and the band excel, as Corbijn essays a mood both timeless and period-precise. At two hours, it (just) outstays its welcome, but rarely misplaces a beat.