Biopics about famed musicians have become Oscar bait over the past few years. "Ray" and "Walk the Line" each examined the lives of troubled artists and their paths to redemption. What separates "Control" from those films is that for Ian Curtis, there was no redemption.
"Control" opens with a sixteen year old Curtis (Sam Riley) walking to his home in Macclesfield, England, a brand new record under his arm. He speaks to no one as he enters his house, not even his own family. He simply walks into his room, puts on Bowie's latest, lies on his bed and really listens to it. It is a perfect introduction to the man. We never see Curtis genuinely happy at any point in the film. The rare smile only serves to accentuate his pain. His major life decisions are displayed as failed attempts at happiness. His marriage at 19 to Deborah (Samantha Morton, "Minority Report") and the birth of their child Natalie are both things that he comes to regret. They weren't the cure all he believed they would be and he resents both wife and child for it, embarking on an affair with a Belgian music journalist. The only thing he truly puts his heart and soul into is his music. Anyone who has listened to Joy Division (and no, Curtis for all his many faults was not a Nazi) can hear Curtis giving every piece of himself to the music.
"Control" is surprisingly straightforward in the way its story is told. Linear storytelling in biopics seems to be coming back into fashion (see also "Assassination of Jesse James"). Don't expect the lighthearted atmosphere of "24 Hour Party People." That 2002 film was the story of Tony Wilson (the man who signed Joy Division), with Curtis and the rest of Joy Division only getting a smattering of screen time. Here the roles are reversed and the tone and pace of "Control" are befitting of Curtis and the band.
Shot in beautiful black and white, first time director Anton Corbijn brings his passion for the band with him (he was their official photographer and shot their videos). He does a very good job but he does occasionally show himself to be new to the craft of feature filmmaking. At times scenes become a bit like video montages instead of scenes for a film. For the most part though he does well to let the actors and music have the spotlight. A lot of credit to Corbijn and the sound department for making the concert scenes sound as close to a real concert as I've ever heard in a feature film. (It didn't hurt that they played it loud at the Egyptian.)
"Control" is a very interesting film while not being terribly insightful. What is fascinating about the lack of insight is that in addition to Corbijn directing, it is based on a book by Deborah Curtis. It shows that even those closest to Curtis were never really able to understand the man. I also liked that the film doesn't try to make you like Curtis. He comes across as a man who was not terribly likable and Riley does well to play him as such. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Joe Anderson ("Across the Universe") as bassist Peter Hook and Tony Kebbell as band manager Rob Gretton. Morton does a fine job as Deborah but she looks far too old to be playing a woman in her early twenties. Corbijn should have cast younger. I'm just glad they didn't cast Jude Law as Curtis as was originally rumored. Curtis was only 23 at the time of his suicide after all. Corbijn's treatment of the final hours of Ian Curtis are agonizing to watch and Riley really shines here.
This review has been a bit long. Joy Division is one of my favorite bands of all-time and I guess like Corbijn, I'm indulging myself a little ("Control" is a bit longer than it really needs to be). It is a flawed film to be sure, but it is really incredibly good. My hope is that it will introduce the band to a new generation of fans. Almost thirty years later, the band's only two full length albums, "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer," have never been duplicated. The music Curtis wrote remains unique and for all the bands Joy Division has influenced, no one can truly sound like them. Of course, if it means living a life like Curtis, I can't imagine anyone wanting to. "Control" is in limited release in several cities across the country. In Seattle it is playing at the Egyptian Theater. 8.5/10.