Things I Learned Watching Control


Have some courtesy, Curtis

I realize I’m a couple of weeks late on this; Control, Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic, hit the Film Forum a couple of weeks ago, and it’s in its final held-over week now, presumably before expanding to other theaters in other cities. But this is literally the first day since Control‘s open that I’ve had time to go see a movie, so here we go.

• I met Anton Corbijn a couple of years ago, right after I moved to New York and started this blog, when I interviewed him along with a couple of other music-video directors, all in town to promote the great Directors’ Label DVD series, for D.I.W. Corbijn has been a music-video director for a long time and a still photographer for longer, but Control is his first feature, and it was still in its early planning stages when I talked to him. When he mentioned something about doing a Joy Division biopic, the other directors there all asked him what he thought of 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s Tony Wilson biopic, and all of them seemed surprised when Corbijn, quiet and reserved when he was talking about every other subject, spoke bitterly of he couldn’t stand Winterbottom’s movie. Corbijn met and photographed Curtis shortly before his suicide, and he couldn’t stand the way Winterbottom treated Curtis’s life and death as a sort of background joke. (When Curtis hangs himself in Winterbottom’s movie, we see his feet dangling while a Loony Tunes cartoon plays in the background.) I’m just extrapolating here, but it seems likely to me that Corbijn never would’ve made Control if Winterbottom hadn’t already made 24 Hour Party People and if Corbijn hadn’t hated it. This is something new: the biopic as corrective. And virtually everything about Control seems formulated in opposition to 24 Hour Party People: it’s slow and serious and metronomic and black-and-white rather than delirious and antic and colorful, and it treats Curtis with the utmost seriousness throughout, even when Curtis doesn’t necessarily deserve it. The fact that Corbijn let any jokes at all creep into Control was both a surprise and a relief.

• The two best things about Control are the music and the stark, minimal cinematography, which actually serve to compliment each other beautifully. When Curtis is a teenager growing up in drab, depressed Manchester and listening to David Bowie, the stultifying visuals make the glimmering music that much more vivid.

• The early scenes of the movie, where Curtis is a gawky, uncomfortable teenager, have a whole lot of great recognizable wince-worthy moments: he zones out on the blackboard in chemistry class, he tries to hide how high he is in front of adults, he gets all giddy about finally getting to see Bowie live. But those early scenes also establish Curtis as a self-important fuck, something that remains a problem throughout the movie. When he portentously intones bad poetry about wanting to be a Warhol painting or when he snakes away his friend’s girlfriend, I can’t tell if I’m meant to identify with him or hate him, but I invariably end up doing the latter. The real-life Curtis probably was an asshole (Corbijn would know better than me), but part of the pleasure in a movie like this lies in the hero-worship aspect, and Corbijn sometimes makes that really, really hard.

• Peter Hook sweats a lot.

• One thing that Control does that virtually no other musician biopic actually bothers with is the day-to-day reality of making music for a living: the mechanics of songwriting and recording, internal band dynamics, the slow evolution of persona, shitty uncomfortable interviews, all that stuff. Movies like Ray and Walk the Line and El Cantante are so consumed with icon-making that they barely touch on this stuff, but for people interested in the artists as musicians instead of as icons, it’s endlessly fascinating, and Control strikes a lot of really pleasurable notes as it follows the development of Joy Division.

• I absolutely love the social stuff surrounding kids who form a band: the attempts to figure stuff out, grouping themselves into loose subcultures, figuring out their places in the world. Writing about Control last week, Matthew Perpetua lamented that so many musician biopics focus on and glorify self-destructive chumps like Curtis rather than young, exciting, fun scenes. I’m not so sure that Matthew’s idea of a B-52s biopic would ever, ever work, but Control really does lose a lot of steam when it moves on from those exciting early scenes.

• John Cooper Clarke shows up as himself, rattling off “Evidently Chickentown” onstage before the first Warsaw show, which is total manna to music dorks. Extra points for that sort of geek-out stuff.

• Tony Wilson served as a co-producer. He also made a cameo appearance in 24 Hour Party People; I wonder what he thought of the divergence between both movies. His character in Control really couldn’t be more different from the way Steve Coogan played him in Winterbottom’s film; rather than a nervous, idealistic raconteur, he’s a fascinated, caring outsider who’s willing to indulge in goofy stunts like signing a contract in his own blood if it’ll make his bands happy but who seems a whole lot more reserved than the musicians around him.

• In my Tony Wilson playlist, I wrote about how the greatest moment in 24 Hour Party People was the one where Wilson, Martin Hannett, and Joy Division ride around listening to “She’s Lost Control.” Control only serves as further proof that Joy Division songs can make for great accompaniment for just about any sort of moving image on a screen. In Control, we hear those songs while Curtis is walking down a street and staring out a car-window and staring out a train window, and they always sound scary and evocative an all-consuming. The performance scenes also thrill in some really interesting ways. Corbijn keeps his takes long and his camera steady, and so all the violence and chaos in these performances come from the music and the performers themselves, and watching Sam Riley flailing around in note-perfect Ian Curtis imitation is considerably more exciting than watching Dave Gahan sitting near-motionless on a throne in the middle of a field for four minutes at a time.

• Corbijn’s big problem, it turns out, is figuring out how to make Curtis’s character sympathetic or interesting enough to carry a two-hour movie, and he never pulls it off for any length of time. Corbijn has a funny relationship with Curtis’s mystique; sometimes he wants to reinforce it and sometimes he wants to puncture it. And yet, both in the scenes where he reinforces it (those poetry voiceovers) and the ones where he punctures it (Curtis crying during sex, Curtis gulping his way through a doctor’s appointment) serve to make Curtis more of an obnoxious tool. The movie’s central plotline is Curtis’s relationship with his wife Debbie, whose 1996 memoir served as the screenplay’s basis. We see them getting married and having a kid way too young, and we see him drifting away and into the arms of his Belgian girlfriend. All the while, he acts like a total spineless worm, never able to choose between the two women in his life, stringing both along. Samantha Morton, who plays Debbie, is as enormously sympathetic in Control as she is in every other role she plays, and so she sort of becomes the hero of the movie while Curtis becomes the villain. Maybe that was the idea, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to leave the movie vaguely hating Curtis, but I do now. Every decision his character makes over the course of the movie, other than his decision to sing for Joy Division but otherwise up to and including his suicide, is a coward’s decision. And so he looks like a coward. Do people want to go see a movie about a coward?

Control comes during a weird moment in the life of the musician-biopic subgenre. At this point, Ray and Walk the Line have exhausted every last possible cliche the genre could has to offer, and El Cantante brought them to their screaming, unwatchable natural conclusions. Control reimagines the biopic as an art-movie, picking and choosing which touchstones it wants to keep and which it wants to discard. It was playing, after all, at Film Forum, where the other screen was playing the eight-hour Soviet version of War and Peace. In a month or so, Film Forum will also play host to another art-film musician-biopic, Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan meditation I’m Not There, the trailer of which gave me chills upon chills when it ran before Control. And pretty soon, Walk Hard promises to explode all those cliches with satirical glee. It’ll be interesting to see if and how the genre manages to recover from these blows. How are the planned Biggie and Kurt Cobain biopics supposed to play after all that?