When I saw Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People in 2002, a dramatization of the Manchester, England music scene from the late '70s to the early '90s, I liked the chapter on Joy Division and its front man Ian Curtis (who committed suicide at the age of 23, the day before the band was to embark on its first American tour) so much that I wished the whole movie was just about them. My wish has been granted with Control, an evocative portrait of Curtis by rock and roll photographer/music video director Anton Corbijn.
This film was a labor of love for Corbijn, who as a young photographer actually shot the real Joy Division. Taking a risk on making a biopic about a somewhat obscure rock figure, and shooting it with a mostly no-name cast in black and white, Corbijn had to dig into his own pocket to fund half of the film's $8-9 million budget. Now that's dedication! While it's too early to tell whether the director will reap any financial benefits from his investment, the film itself is a beautiful payoff.
Corbijn's drive for authenticity is impressive: he shoots around Curtis's actual Macclesfield neighborhood, gets the era's clothes and the hairstyles absolutely right, and brings out emotional yet no-nonsense performances from his actors.
While Samantha Morton (as Curtis's drab, stay-at-home wife) is the sole "name" in the cast, the strength of any film about Ian Curtis rests on the shoulders of the actor chosen to play him. And as Curtis, Sam Riley is nothing less than outstanding. He not only looks and moves just like Curtis, he actually gets you to feel like you know this enigmatic figure. It is, frankly, the best performance I've seen so far this year.
I highly recommend Control, especially to anybody who has even a passing interest in the tragic story of Joy Division. My only reservations with the film regard the use of the band's music. It's laudable that Corbijn has his cast actually play the songs in most cases, but as he tries to find that narrow middle ground between casual listeners familiar only with "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and fans who have memorized every song, he fills the movie primarily with Joy Division's singles, occasionally to the detriment of authenticity. (For example, in an otherwise faithful re-creation of the band's first TV appearance, the actors play the high-energy "Transmission", rather than the dirge-like "Shadowplay", which is what Joy Division played on the actual program.)
Since even the better-known songs may be unfamiliar to many in the audience, this is a minor complaint. (Only the inevitable use of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" feels forced.) The movie is otherwise perfect. It's a wholly satisfying experience.