Monday, October 08, 2007

Control issues

For some viewers, the micro version of the rise and fall of the British band Joy Division and the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis, as told in 2002's 24 Hour Party People, will be enough. For the rest, there is Control, a first film from photographer Anton Corbijn, who got his start about 30 years ago photographing the group in moody black and white. Martin Ruhe's cinematography replicates that exact look in widescreen , at 24 frames per second. I'm on the fence about whether the story of a Byronic 23-year-old who hanged himself needed the full, two-hours-and-change biopic treatment after being so precisely captured in a prior film, but Control, a Weinstein Company release that opens Oct. 10 in New York, is a respectable second burial.

I could go on (and not for the first time) about how I resent seeing another piece of my adolescence stuffed and mounted on the silver screen, but I'd be lying. Fact of the matter is my musical tastes back then ran to Supertramp, Hall & Oates, and the Lennon side of Abbey Road (I don't think I ever turned the record over till college), and I'm not sure I could have placed Joy Division, whose two and only albums I got acquainted with much later (all I have of them on CD, however, are the cuts from the Party People soundtrack). I like what I know of their funereal, not-so-joyous music, which sprang from the gritty streets of Manchester (so spiffed up today the new movie was made elsewhere) and Curtis. After he was gone the band reemerged as the peppier, chart-topping New Order, as if the members were somehow trying to exorcise his heavy spirit.

The movie calls a spade a spade: Curtis was a pill, a 24 hour perpetual pain in the ass. He had enviable talent. And epilepsy, which made him a little more sympathetic. Some of the best scenes in the film show Curtis, well-played (or perhaps well-channeled) by newcomer Sam Riley, at work as an unemployment counselor, a day job he seems to have taken seriously. Other than that, though, it was clearly best seeing him on stage, with his faux boxing moves, or on an album cover or in one of the director's photos, where his studied anti-charisma (making him all the more desirable as an object of veneration) leaps off the paper. He married too young and was a poor husband to his wife, who got caught up in his romantic temperament but could not fathom it. He neglected their daughter. He wasn't much better to his girlfriend, a foreign journalist, and the two of them were locked in mutual mopedom. Drugged and depressed, he had trouble showing up for gigs and studio dates, holding his band hostage. Worse, for dramatic purposes, he knew all of this and was wracked with guilt. A lot of the film is the other characters waiting for Curtis, as Curtis holes himself up in his room. (there is no "answer" to his suicide, but the movie omits his obsession with rock stars who died young, which may or may not explain anything but was likely omitted to preserve the image of enigmatic, unpredictable genius.)

In the weaker biopics, you can tell who has the rights to that story by the disproportionate amount of time the movie spends on that person. Control is based on a memoir by Deborah Curtis, Ian's widow, but the treatment is entirely self-effacing. She, too, stands outside the limelight her husband tried to shun. Samantha Morton (who is also credited as a producer) is, frankly, overqualified for the undemanding role. The two-time Oscar nominee specializes in quiet types yet there's little roiling underneath the mousy, unassuming Debbie, a night's-in-with-the-little-one kind of person stuck with a passive-aggressive spouse who probably should have stayed home, rested, and wrote more poetry once his foothold in the rock pantheon was secured. The filmmakers seem to have prevailed upon Deborah so Control is surprisingly even-handed regarding Annik, the modish, bleak-chic rock writer girlfriend (played by Alexandra Maria Lara). She has her say, not that she has much to say, either. The late impresario Tony Wilson, played so memorably by Steve Coogan in the earlier film, is portrayed from a greater distance by Craig Parkinson.

Distance and discretion sum up Control. The high church look of the film, with its imposing black, whites, and grays, works against the few moments of levity, as when Curtis responds to stage fright in an oblivous, unembarrassed way. But Control treats budding rock stardom and its toll on a delicate ego as no laughing matter. One man's funk is another man's fascination, and so it is with Ian Curtis, who lived, died, left a good-looking corpse, and now has a feature film for cultists to contemplate.

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