I headed into the video store rather aimlessly – restless, humid summer night. On the new releases shelf, there’s “Control” and beside it the disarmingly simply titled “Joy Division” doc. Done. “Control” hadn’t screened anywhere near me and I didn’t know it was even out. Like listening to JD in general, going on a mission to hunt the thing down seemed wrong – it would crop up at the right time and this was definitely it.
“Control” tells a painful story we’ve all read, seen and rewritten dozens of times. We go in asking how particular moments will be handled, how’ll they do the Pistols show, will there be Manc cameos, and what’s this about these actors actually playing the tracks live? That latter point is handled quite, quite well. These guys never really sound like the dozens of live JD gigs we’ve accumulated, but they do sound as though they’re coming to their presentation of the material organically, never sounding as though they’ve aborted a more natural approach in order to present a more “authentic” version, and in a way that’s much more difficult (see “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”). Samantha Morton as Deborah and Toby Kebbell as Gretton nearly steal the show at every turn, but the film devotes itself entirely to live gigs and Ian’s life, so there are countless unexplored avenues (Hannett and the recording of the music in particular get short shrift) as we trundle towards “The Idiot” and “Stroszek”. By the end we’re a bit exhausted at the implacability of everything, which is likely as it should be.
Grant Gee’s doc ropes in just about everyone involved with the story and not only gives newcomers an excellent primer on the what, when and why, but uncovers a plethora of new info for obsessives like myself. Saville hadn’t heard “Unknown Pleasures” when he did the design for it. Morris used to huff solvents. There’s a complete botching of Derrida, even, crediting him with coining the term “ontology”. Brief snippets of Hannett are a treat. The Annik footage is quiet, respectful, and not nearly as relevatory as some ambulance chasers might hope. Audio footage of Barney hypnotizing Ian after his unsuccessful OD foots that bill, but ends up aimlessly eerie rather than informative. Gretton appears via shots of his manic scribble in recording and gigging-related notebooks. We get what’s likely the last footage of Wilson speaking on the subject. Hooky is Hooky and Morley is Morley. The bits that hit the gut the hardest surprisingly come from laddish pre-Gretton manager and roadie Terry Mason, who still gets tripped up by questions and guilt. Men don’t talk he says, but could I have done something?
Both films stress two points in Curtis’ life that have been underplayed in every other account of his life and band that I’ve read: the role that his epilepsy medication (the side effects of which were amplified by alcohol and relentless gigging) played in exacerbating his depression, and the role that his work finding job placements for the disabled played in his lyrics. We’ve all heard about the girl who inspired “She’s Lost Control”, but both Deborah and Barney argue that Ian’s work was marked by a broader compassion for the marginalized. This, as they say, is something to ponder.
There we are: two Joy Division films, one a keen paring down, the other an encyclopaedic explosion. You likely already know if these are for you, and hopefully you’ll know when to watch them.