Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Anton Corbijn is easily one of the best photographers and music video directors around. Even The Killers, who I am not even that keen on, slightly won me over thanks to their Corbijn-directed video for "All the Things That I Have Done." You know going in that this film will be shot beautifully with his signature style, but because of his love and relationship with Joy Division, it really sets this film apart from some other biopics. In fact, Corbijn is the perfect man to do this biopic. I couldn't imagine it in the hands of anyone else (I once had a terrible dream that McG directed a biopic of one of my favorite bands. Noooo!). It just wouldn't have been as effective or approached with as much love and care. He even financed half of the film's budget out of his own pocket. The detail of how it was shot to capture the mood and feeling of Ian Curtis/Joy Division and his/their surrounding and the care taken to recreate the live performances as accurately as possible really sets it apart from most biopics you'll see.

Control is a biopic that focuses on Ian Curtis, the singer for the late and great band Joy Division, who tragically took his own life right before their debut American tour. The film is actually based on the book Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis, Ian's widow. It follows his life from his David Bowie-obsessed teenage years up to his unfortunate suicide (1973-1980 according to Corbijn). What separates this biopic from your other run-of-the-mill biopics is that it works almost like a series of snapshots or memories rather than a fluid time frame. I found this interesting seeing that part of Corbijn's relationship with the band was from the photos he shot of them for NME.

While some films of this ilk will spend a little too much time exaggerating the tiny details of a problem or even embellishing certain elements of dialogue or parts of their life, Control avoids this for this most part. Sure it has the same old drugs, adultery and downfall and it does fall victim to your biopic conventions like having moments directly relate to songs or events, but it's more subtle when it does those things so it makes it forgivable or unnoticeable.
Of course details are fudged here and there for story reasons, like how they decided to become a band right after they leave the legendary Sex Pistols show at Lesser Free Trade Hall and the other being that when Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson introduces Joy Division on Granada Television and they perform "Transmission" rather than "Shadowplay" (they do play "Transmission" later on BBC 2's Something Else). But Corbijn acknowledges these changes in the commentary, but it really doesn't matter all that much for cinematic purposes.

Corbijn makes this film look amazing for a lower-budget film. He reveals in the extras and commentary that he shot the movie entirely in color and then made it black and white in post because the original test shots in black and white were too grainy. The choice to do black and white is a great one, because just as Corbijn points out, most of what we know or have seen of Joy Division is through mostly photos (mostly black and white) and stories of the people who were there. One of my favorite scenes from the film is pretty simple. We see Ian (played fantastically by Sam Riley) walking out of his house and straight to work (which was actually done in real time), smoking a cigarette while "No Love Lost" is played prominently over the scene and a shot reveals that the words HATE are written in large white letters on the back of Ian's black jacket. It's just a really cool scene and one that Corbijn nailed effectively. The black and white really works in capturing the tone and feeling of Joy Division's music. It has a feeling of being dark, bleak and has an element of despair all while having a very human quality to it without being too cold and distant.

The actors chosen for this film are perfect. "Newcomer" Riley does a superb job playing Ian and will no doubt go on to do great things. The other shining light of this film is Samantha Morton who plays Deborah. The emotional intensity and even subtlety she brings to the screen is amazing and really makes her more than just an actor playing the role of a wife of a troubled artist. The benefit of taking from Deborah's book is that we do get that her perspective. The chemistry of Riley and Morton on screen effectively shows the hurt and isolation of the failing marriage. We feel the pain of love falling apart and even how a "guilty" party feels remorse. Riley plays Ian as real as possible by showing he is troubled and makes mistakes, but is still very human. Even though seeing his affair with Annik Honoré (played by the beautiful Alexandra Maria Lara) is heartbreaking to watch because you know the effect it's taking on Deborah and their marriage; you can't help but still feel some kind of sadness and sympathy for Ian. Corbijn states in the commentary that he tried to figure out how to avoid cliché and followed instinct and heart, and I'd say he did a great job at doing this.

The actors who play the rest of Joy Division (Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, and Harry Treadaway) deserve a ton of credit, not only for their acting but for actually learning the instruments and the music of those they portray. The performances you see in the film are actually done spot-on by the actors, which is almost unheard of for any biopic. To watch Riley nail the croon and swagger of Ian on stage is really a treat for any Joy Division fan. It's that care to detail that really makes this film so much more than just a story of a man and band's life. Other notable performances are from Toby Kebbell who plays the band's manager Rob Gretton and Craig Parkinson who plays Tony Wilson.

The extras are a bit slim, but have enough to make the purchase of the DVD worth it. On this disc we get audio commentary with Corbijn; The Making of Control; Out of Control: A Conversation with Anton Corbijn; Extended Live Concert Performances of "Transmission," "Leaders of Men," and "Candidate" from the film; Joy Division music videos for "Transmission" and "Atmosphere;" "Shadowplay" music video by The Killers; and a still gallery. I understand Corbijn picked The Killers to show the influence of Joy Division in today's popular music, but I personally would have preferred a band like Interpol (not to mention other bands doing much better Joy Division covers, i.e. Girls Against Boys' cover of "She's Lost Control), but I digress. Also, Corbijn's commentary is so soft spoken (and sometimes hard to understand with the accent) it makes it a bit difficult to listen to. Most of what he says is basically covered in the extras anyway.

This is Corbijn's first film and he chose the right project to begin with. He has the talent and vision to continue as a great film director and I'm eager to see what he will accomplish in the future with film. This biopic may not be for those who aren't very familiar with Joy Division or Ian Curtis, especially since the movie doesn't exactly have the "shimmer" and "pop" of a large-studio-budgeted biopic (but that's a good thing, trust me), it still remains a wonderful, beautiful film and well worth your time.