Lights Are Flashing: At the Movies with Joy Division

By Alex Rice
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Control (2007)

There is perhaps no one in the universe better suited to translate the Ian Curtis mythos to the big screen than Anton Corbijn. The famed Dutch director/photographer shot some of the most iconic stills of Joy Division and was once again at the helm for this black-and-white, warts-and-all biopic of the singer, which, while remaining reverential, strips back several layers of the legend. It’s the story of how four unlikely Mancunians bended their own reality to stake a claim in rock history, bullying their way into an alliance with the posh TV host who championed them and climbing to the top of the U.K. charts with their unique brand of gothic punk. It’s also the chronicle of an unraveling psyche, the story of how Curtis married the wrong girl out of secondary school, became a father far too young, was openly unfaithful, found himself crushed under the burdens of success, suffered frequent bouts of epilepsy and took his own life at the age of 23. Based on a book by widow Debbie Curtis (beautifully and heartbreakingly portrayed here by Samantha Morton), Control is an elegant film that does away with the elegant image of its cult hero subject, dropping the viewer into the world he inhabited rather than simply remembering him from afar. Through it all, Ian Curtis remains as fascinating and enigmatic a character as ever.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

The absurdist, fourth-wall-breaking 24 Hour Party People traces the evolution of Manchester from a city that turned out just 42 people for a 1976 Sex Pistols gig (although the audience was a Who’s Who of British alt-rock - Morrissey, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, every member of Joy Division sans Stephen Morris) through the birth of rave culture to, as Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson puts it, “the center of the universe.” The events of the film are seen through the eyes of Wilson, a television personality who founded Factory Records and ran the “superclub” at the heart of Manchester’s music scene, The Haçienda, in conjunction with New Order. The first half focuses heavily on his relationship with Factory’s initial signees, Joy Division, and covers the band’s arc with a comedic bent. Curtis introduces himself to his future boss by calling him a “fucking cunt,” the band makes Wilson sign a contract with them in his own blood and the band forgets to tell Morris, recording his drums on the roof of the studio, that they’re done for the night. “If you listen to Ian’s music and you know that he killed himself, then you probably imagine him as some very dark and depressive prophet of urban decay and alienation,” Wilson says in a monologue to the viewer. “But I have some wonderful memories of him.”

Joy Division (2007)

Employing revelatory interviews with the three surviving band members, rare archival footage and stunning civic cinematography, Grant Gee’s (Radiohead tour film Meeting People is Easy) stab at the Joy Division story uses the post-war degradation and late 20th century rebirth of Manchester as its backdrop, even crediting the four twenty-something musicians with reviving the grimy, industrial northern city. That may sound ridiculous, but think of the musical exports who followed Joy Division and New Order out of Manchester in the ensuing decades - The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Verve, Oasis. “You were always looking for beauty because it was such an ugly place,” says Joy Division guitarist/New Order singer Bernard Sumner in the film, talking about growing up in its 1960s depression. “I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine.” The documentary also goes into the selection process for Joy Division’s two album covers, with designer Peter Saville disclosing that he hadn’t yet heard Unknown Pleasures when he conceptualized its iconic and inseparable artwork. The eeriest bit is towards the end, when an audio recording of Sumner attempting hypnotic regression therapy on Curtis just weeks before his May 1980 suicide is unearthed. Channeling a past life, the latter imagines himself as a 28-year-old reading “a book of laws.”

New Order Story (1993)

The Joy Division story isn’t complete with the lengthy postscript popularly known as New Order. This 50-minute documentary, released in conjunction with Republic, the latter’s sixth LP and their best-selling in America, sets the band inside a fake game show (complete with chatty host, cue cards and studio audience). “Who’s the laziest member of the group?” the host asks. “Ian Curtis,” says bassist Peter Hook, without missing a beat. “I haven’t seen him do anything for years!” Tony Wilson doesn’t pull any punches when discussing Curtis, either. “The phrase ‘You bastard’ did come to my lips... He started the bloody thing, so he should have gone through the shit with us.” Wilson and the others have always dealt with Curtis’s death with a perverted sense of humor, but they are rightly reverential to their fallen friend, as well. “We had the most charismatic lead singer of a generation,” he opines later, while Sumner says “it was an honor” to follow in his footsteps. A pair of other famous frontmen make cameos in U2’s Bono and Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. “We love the man and we love the band,” raves the man referred to as “Bongo” throughout the film, who, in typical Bono fashion, slyly works one of his future song titles into a quote. “They were an original of the species.”

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Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages. 
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Photos: Flickr