To the degree that they do so, music snobs remember Ian Curtis for two things. For being near the top of the list of punk-poets, summoning with morose lyrics and strains the grim destitution of late 1970s Manchester, England. And for being one of the most notable rock music suicides, leaving behind his band Joy Division, two bleakly ambient albums, a cult legend as a musical prophet, and a very real widow and infant daughter.
If he wrote unusually knowingly for a 23-year-old man, the superb musical biopic Control makes clear that his short life supplied plenty of material. An unwise early marriage to a childhood crush. The torpor of depression. Bouts of epilepsy that occasionally broke out onstage. The strain of being between an exciting mistress and bland devotion to his wife and child. All well and good, you might interject. But nothing new, in life or onscreen. So what sets this film apart?
1) The eruption of Sam Riley. Drenched in stage sweat or silent emotional suffering, the newcomer lead uses every ounce of his slim frame to capture Curtis’ haunting intensity. He imbues both activity and silence with noticeable electricity. He also conveys Curtis’ self-indulgence and dramatization, the type that sometimes attends a voracious mind.
2) The film is as interested in cinema, in visual storytelling, as it is in music. The film is the debut directorial effort of legendary rock photographer Anton Corbijn (shot by cinematographer Martin Ruhe), whose original austere photos of Joy Division are partly responsible for their cult cache. Naturally, he pays laborious attention to composition, and the lacquerous black-and-white richly simulates the bleakness of the era.
3) Its wider sense of film history. Control doesn’t skimp on the music, basking in the rawness and intensity of the punk and post-punk eras. Yet it surpasses the musical biopic’s roots in musicals by finding inspiration in the tough, working-class English dramas of the sixties and seventies.
4) The central belief of the standard musical biopic is redemption, through music and love. So dedicated is Walk the Line, for instance, to this formula that it twists the title song from one of fidelity to a later abandoned wife into a love song for the other woman (partly the reason that the Johnny Cash biopic is the foot-stomping fraud that it is).
Control is the anti-Walk the Line. Curtis feels lingering attachment to his wife (well played by Samantha Morton), even if he is, as stated in his own lyrics, “mistaking devotion and love.” Curtis’ dalliance doesn’t liberate him but sends him deeper into the hole. Part of the reason this film works so splendidly is that, given its ending, it doesn’t have the luxury of pretend redemption.
This might be the second time you’ve seen the story onscreen. Curtis’ life and death is part of the polka-dotted tall tale of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s madcap 24-Hour Party People. It’s a film that Corbijn is rumored to detest, due to its less than reverent treatment of Curtis’ death. Thus he approaches Control with the generosity of a onlooker and the ferocity of a man dying to tell his side. The final result is an ode to vitality and fatality.