Friday, May 1, 2009

Touching From A Distance

The special lady friend and I recently watched Control, the 2007 film about the legendary English post-punk band Joy Division. The movie is difficult to watch - it is shot entirely in black and white, with little background music, a tragic ending, and a lot of mumbled dialogue delivered in an almost indecipherable combination of northern English accents. The plot follows Ian Curtis, Joy Division's lead singer, who grows up in a project in the north of England, gets married as a teenager, apparently to the first woman he ever showed any interest it, works a mind-numbing job at a job placement agency, stumbles across a quality band in search of a lead singer, fights off depression and a scary series of seizures long enough to create two brilliant studio albums that would influence a generation of musicians including U2, the Smiths and Radiohead, has an affair with a French rock journalist, then hangs himself in his wife's kitchen. Absolutely nothing about the movie is uplifting.

Joy Division was always successful with critics, and influential among other bands, but Curtis died - and the band reformed itself as New Order - before it found anything approaching mainstream commercial success. Until the very end, despite his serious medical problems, Curtis worked days at the placement agency while playing rock clubs at night. We know that he was depressed, but why would such a talent, who earnestly dreamed his entire life of escaping the dreariness of his upbringing, commit suicide with the band's second studio album already in the can, and just as his band was about to leave for a two-week tour of the United States that would likely have brought Curtis the success he so badly desired? To its credit the movie doesn't attempt to answer that question, perhaps because there really isn't a good answer.

Curtis didn't die because he lacked the discipline to control his drug habit, or because he had the arrogance to drive drunk. He didn't die in a fluke airplane accident like Buddy Holly or Otis Redding or Stevie Ray Vaughn. If there's one thing that the movie's ending - a rope pulling taught, a fade to black, "Atmosphere" playing in its entirety - its that Curtis' was killed by the very demons that inspired two great albums and five or six of the short-list greatest rock songs ever recorded. He was talented, he was drowning in despair, and one couldn't exist without the other.

All of the music in the band's live performances is played by the actors themselves, and they do an outstanding job. To ask whether they sound like the real thing is to sort of miss the point; the actors sound good enough that after the first couple of seconds you stop being distracted by the ways in which the covers sound different than the original; to allow you to appreciate the scenes on their own terms. In that sense, the actors succeeded enormously.

Take, for instance, the recreation of their September 15, 1979 performance on.

Compare the movie version:


To the real-life version:


The focus of the scene in the movie is to show the band coming together, and to show how Ian Curtis gave so much of himself in his live performances that he unwittingly weakened himself for the seizures and crippling depression that would ultimately contribute to his death by suicide. The music in the movie is convincing enough that we stop caring about how the drumming isn't as relentlessly hard as Stephen Morris', or that the actor's bass lead-in doesn't snap with the menace of Peter Hook's inimitable original. Its just good.

On a personal note, I first heard Joy Division in college, but I was too happy and earnest of a person to really hear them. It wasn't until the late fall of my first year in law school, stranded with a handful of friends in a culture I hated, deeply in debt, with a five-month winter and two and a half more years of soul-crushing law school to look forward to, that Joy Division's blackness and intensity and . . . anger really spoke to me. In many ways, Joy Division is a hard band to like, but an easy band to love - if you're in the right frame of mind. Sooner or later, we all have our dark night of the soul. Some of us have many. Weakened by health problems, too much responsibility and too little sleep, Curtis wasn't able to control his demons, but so long as despair like his gives rise to art as effecting as this, the rest of us have reason to hope.

1 comment:

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