Watching Anton Corbijn’s sumptuously shot Control, the wisdom of Werner Herzog filled my head. Responding to charges that he took far too many liberties with real-life events in Rescue Dawn, Herzog responded that “if you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate.”
And this is the problem with Corbijn’s film version of the life of Joy Division’s doomed front man Ian Curtis, based on the book Touching from a Distance by his widow Deborah. On the surface, Corbijn seems the perfect choice to direct the material. After all, he was there—the photographer on the scene during Manchester’s musical heyday, shooting Joy Division and other bands in the same signature style he’d later apply to music videos for Depeche Mode and U2 among others. But it turns out that this insider knowledge is actually Corbijn’s Achilles heel. He’s too close to his subject, so concerned with taking Ian Curtis down from the cross of rock martyrdom and returning him to everyman’s land that he’s unwilling to diverge from the absolute facts. Corbijn has given us a stark, tactile black-and-white phone book, his gorgeous near-noir lighting casting sharp shadows in lieu of illumination.
The result brings to mind Tom Kalin directing for the Lifetime network, the script never rising to the artistic level of the visual. Even Joy Division’s complicated, transcendental music is reduced to simple accents on predictable scenes. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is heard after Ian tells Debbie he doesn’t love her. “Isolation” is played with Ian singing alone behind a soundproof window, isolated from his mistress Annik on the other side. “She’s Lost Control” follows a shot of Ian writing the song’s title in a notepad. And so on until Corbijn ends with “Atmosphere” (the video of which he himself directed after Ian’s life ended). This is not a film. It’s the visualization of a set list.
Ironically, Corbijn’s noble impulse to drain the rock star out of Ian Curtis—to humanize through a straightforward narrative approach—has drained the life out of the man as well. Indeed, Control can be summed up by the equation “gloomy Manchester plus epilepsy plus bizarre love triangle equals suicide.” Unfortunately, people are not that simple—and the epileptic, Bowie-worshipping poet who became the lead singer of a band whose influence continues to this day was most certainly not that simple. To portray things as they happened without delving beneath the surface, without letting fiction tease the truth from fact, does a disservice to Ian Curtis and Joy Division’s music.
Todd Haynes knew better than to tackle Bob Dylan head-on in his forthcoming, nonlinear tribute to the musical chameleon, I’m Not There. I wonder why Corbijn didn’t choose a similar path in portraying Ian Curtis. Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People both went beyond the cold dreariness of British life in the 70s to expose the explosive, communal spirit of its music scene, a force that shook youth around the world. Corbijn does show how powerful a figure Ian Curtis was by including a scene in which a riot occurs after Joy Division takes to the stage minus its mentally unstable front man. Unfortunately, we’re never quite sure why Corbijn’s “everyday bloke” is so venerated. (In fact, by minimizing band mates Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook as characters, Corbijn is actually elevating the mythic stature of Curtis.) That Ian Curtis was the “man behind the music” is absurd, evidenced by the birth of New Order after his death. What caused the riot was the splintering of the collective subconscious that was Joy Division, of which Ian Curtis was its face and voice. But this context is lost.
Corbijn wants the audience to relate to Ian Curtis, not to elevate him, but he takes such great pains to demonstrate how “normal” he was that his eventual suicide seems to come out of nowhere. The filmmaker shows us someone experiencing the ups and downs of life, but does not reveal the tipping point, that moment when depression turns to desperation. Curtis may have been unknowable, but then again, that’s what art is for—to fill in those mysterious gaps. Control is a beauty to behold, but if it’s illumination you’re after, I suggest curling up with Touching from a Distance while listening to The Warsaw Demo.