‘Control’ gives new life to the biopic

Ian Curtis, iconic lead singer of 1970s post-punk band Joy Division, is almost as well known for his music as he is for his untimely death. Suffering from epilepsy, which led to depression, Curtis committed suicide at age 23 on the eve of Joy Division’s first U.S. tour on May 18, 1980. Since his death, Curtis has become one of rock history’s darkest, most mysterious figures. Director Anton Corbijn’s new biopic, Control, humanizes his cult legend in a powerful account of Curtis’s life and death.

Control covers the life of Curtis, from his experimental adolescence and his obsession with punk culture icons to his rushed marriage to the origins of Joy Division. The film is loosely based off the memoirs of Curtis’s widow, Hannah, and details their relationship and the events in his life that led up to his suicide.

This is not the first film to feature Curtis. The 2002 film 24 Hour Party People directed by Michael Winterbottom provided some background on Joy Division, but Control gives a more comprehensive account of Curtis’s story. The film is the first feature from the Corbijn, an already well-established photographer and music video director. Corbijn has worked with artists including Nirvana, Depeche Mode and Joy Division in the past. His personal connection with the band is evident in his attention to detail with Control.

As Curtis, heartthrob Sam Riley does an excellent job at capturing an innocent, brooding romantic as well as bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to the star. Samantha Morton is also wonderful as Curtis’ warm but painfully naïve wife, Hannah.

The film’s real excitement and energy, however, comes from the live music performances. Because the actors actually learned how to play the songs for the making of the film, these scenes are injected with a raw, surreal power.

Rather than succumb to hero-worship, the film portrays Curtis as fully human. When not on the stage, the rock star was a lonely guy who worked a menial job at an unemployment office and had a baby at the age of 22.

Although the soundtrack features musicians such as The Buzzcocks and The Velvet Underground from the proto-punk Manchester music scene, the power of the film comes through whether you are familiar with the music or not. Every shot is beautifully filmed in a crisp and stark black-and-white monochrome.

After sitting through Ray and Walk the Line, I wasn’t thrilled to see yet another derivative biopic. While Control doesn’t stray from the traditional biopic narrative, it avoids the formula’s clichés. The film’s refusal to make assumptions about Curtis’s hidden emotional nature is more appropriate, albeit unsatisfying.

I had always thought Ian Curtis was plagued by inner demons, but the movie suggests that much of his depression was not due to any nihilistic tendencies, but rather associated with his epileptic fits, his over-medication and his deteriorating relationship with his wife. Control reminds us that there are no definitive answers when it comes to suicide.

Many people, including his band members, ignored the meaning behind Curtis’s lyrics during his career, but after his death they received more scrutiny. After seeing Control, I was similarly motivated to explore his lyrics and what led Curtis to take his own life.

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