Should you see “Control”? Sure. I guess.

I finally got around to seeing “Control” last night, and I very, very much wanted to feel enthusiastic about it after leaving the theatre — but I was left unmoved. I bet some of my friends were just waiting for my argumentative nature to kick in so that I could trash the film, but I did genuinely want to like it. It just didn’t happen because — It’s kinda boring and thematically wishy-washy.

The greatest sin a film can commit is simply being mediocre — and “Control” in and of itself is not mediocre — but its intentions are. The acting throughout is great, the cast’s newly-recorded recreations of the original music is better than I’d imagined (still sounding like a well-versed cover band and not like the actual band, but it could’ve been a lot worse), and the cinematography, the best thing about the film, is breathtaking — but, as a friend of mine who quoted Curtis to me over the phone after having seen the film said: “Where will it end…where will it end?”

“Control” is not a film about Joy Division, but rather the tragic story about the marriage, illness and suicide of a British lad who happened to be in a band; Joy Division is merely the backdrop for the protagonist’s internal conflict — which is fine, but never once does director Anton Corbijn bother to explain exactly why the band, its music and its frontman were so important. Corbijn was the rock photographer in Britain responsible for some of the potent iconic imagery of the band back in the late 1970s, but here in the film, his visual style constantly mimicks that of his original photos, but he hardly ever goes into the band stuff at all — a truly strange choice.

Again, it’s perfectly acceptable to me for the filmmakers to favor the failed marriage end of the story over rock band minutiae, since the majority of the film’s potential audience won’t be made up of JD super-fans — but there is simply not enough of a balance between the two sides of the story. Peter Hartlaub, reviewing “Control” for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes:

[The film] will fill you in on everything you might want to know about the difficult relationship between Debbie and Ian Curtis. ‘You love someone else,’ she tells him, during one of their many increasingly sad confrontations. ‘What’s that got to do with us?’ is his response. But there’s little illumination as to where Curtis’ genius came from and how it changed the world for millions of music fans.

The film’s first 20 minutes are its strongest, showing a pre-Joy Division teenage Curtis dreaming about rock stardom, flirting with drug use and engaging in sweet romance — but as soon as the marital problems plot thread shows up, everything grinds to a screeching halt. In addition, Corbijn makes the case that Curtis killed himself only because he was in a marriage with a woman he didn’t love anymore, and because he was distressed over having to down so many meds. What about Curtis’s very obvious mental health problems, like mood swings and depression? What about what the rest of the band thought of his condition?

My thoughts on the film are best mirrored by reviewer Noel Murray, writing for The Onion, a surprisingly solid destination for film criticism:

Early in Anton Corbijn’s stark black-and-white Joy Division biopic ‘Control’, frontman Ian Curtis (astonishingly well-portrayed by the angular, haunted Sam Riley) is shown walking down the streets of Manchester, sporting a overcoat with ‘HATE’ painted on the back, while the soundtrack rumbles with the opening passages of Joy Division’s ‘No Love Lost.’ At the end of the route, Curtis doffs his coat and sits down at an office desk, ready for another day of finding jobs for the disabled. In that one moment, Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh precisely capture what forged Curtis: the bleakness of a rusting industrial city, the angry promise of punk, and the exhausting reality of domestic responsibility.

But the problem with ‘Control’ — along with nearly every other attempt so far to dramatize the Joy Division story—is that the details of Curtis’ life and death aren’t as interesting as they seem. Born and raised in Manchester, Curtis was an aspiring poet and civil servant who married young, was inspired by Sex Pistols to join a local band, had an amazing three-year run of music-making, developed a form of epilepsy, cheated on his wife, and then hung himself the night before Joy Division was scheduled to leave on a U.S. tour. Corbijn spends a lot of time on the epilepsy and the affair, and devotes almost the entire final hour of ‘Control’ to the two-week wallow leading up to Curtis’ suicide. What Corbijn doesn’t get is any kind of reasonable explanation for how such a normal-seeming guy and the three moderately talented lads he shared a stage with managed to write and perform songs as shattering as ‘Disorder,’ ‘She’s Lost Control,’ ‘Transmission,’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ Something reached down and touched them. But what?

Corbijn and Greenhalgh can’t shoulder too much blame for not answering what may be an unanswerable question, but they do deserve to be rapped for wasting the kinetic rush of ‘Control’s’ first hour on a second half so turgid that it would verge on overkill even at half the length. Riley makes a perfect Curtis, and Corbijn’s finely shaded recreations of classic Joy Division performances are so exciting that the movie could’ve been nothing but fake concert footage, and it would’ve been every bit as moving as the filmmakers intended. Instead, ‘Control’ piles on argument after argument between Curtis and his wife (extra-dowdy Samantha Morton), and scene after scene of Curtis moping in the corner. The story of ‘Control’s’ creation is the story of great potential, squandered. Joy Division fans should be able to relate.

So should you see “Control”? Sure. I guess. I’m not telling you not to — I’m saying that it’s no illumination on anything. It looks pretty, though. In the end, it’s great that the cinema can be lit up with the story of someone from the world of music that deserves to have their story told. Which begs the question: so when the fuck do we get a Fela movie?

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688 Responses to Should you see “Control”? Sure. I guess.

  1. RS says:

    Much as I love JD,…etc, I have to say that I’ve not even been tempted to see “Control”. But the thought of a really decent Fela movie? Now that would be something to get excited about!

  2. Jude says:

    there’s that intrigued part of my old arse that wants to see this, but i’m feeling as though it’s an introductory piece for newbies to name-drop the band or Curtis — rather than a just reward for those who may have actually loved the band and have since outgrown the fascination many, many years ago.

    i’m sure it’s a hot topic…at your local participating Hot Topic. double yikes.

    thanks for your honesty.

  3. Phill says:

    Fela movie? Hell yeah! Not gonna hold my breath, though.

  4. Alec says:

    I think the problem with the film is that it is pretty much a straight story of a guy being trapped by his circumstances and eventually being driven to suicide.

    The band that he plays in happens to be Joy Division, but for the purposes of the story it could be any band. In the film, the band is just another thing that piles pressure upon the protagonist.

    ‘Control’ feels fictional, even though it is a true story. It’s not a bad film at all – it just isn’t about Joy Division.

  5. Marshall says:

    We’re never gonna get a truly great Fela movie, but we might get a really, really bad one if we’re lucky, someday…

    I’m totally avoiding Control – like ill-fated band reunions, I don’t want anything messing with my Joy Division fetish.

  6. Geoff says:

    I’d say go see it. It isn’t so much about JD as about the disintegration of Curtis’ marriage. Beautifully filmed, it should be noted, and the “band” were more than competent.

  7. taco says:

    I never “got” Joy Division, and I wanted to, I really did, great name, decent LP art. . . but the music left me feeling disinterested (maybe that says something).

    But it’s all a matter of taste I guess; the first time I heard Beefheart it hit me like Archimedes yelling “EUREKA!”, and some people can’t understand Beefheart.

  8. shackle says:

    I have not seen it, yet, maybe when it hits DVD land. I read the book it is drawn from, written by his wife and found it to be well written and filled with emotion. However, it felt like reading someones diary, one sided and private. It probably didn’t need to be made into a movie since the book exists. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel the way you do, without having seen it.

    S

  9. isabelle corbisier says:

    Hi there,
    Don’t lose sight that Deborah Curtis co-produced that film that, furthermore, was supposed to be based on her book. I’m pretty well informed of the circumstances in which this film was made as I know one of its main protagonists. Corbijn still tried to balance a bit Deborah Curtis’s obviously one-sided view of what happened to her marriage and the affair that Ian had with talented (Les Disques Du Crépuscule co-founder) Belgian Annik Honoré but his freedom of speech was still fairly limited.
    I never got to see the film. I’ve had dozens of occasions to see it but, strangely enough, I always made up some “good” excuses to myself for not going.
    Isabelle

  10. LV says:

    Not seen it and won’t unless by accident, too many other films i want to see first..but It is worth mentioning that Joy Division were barely known in Britain until Ian Curtis’ suicide, and their subsequent hit single “love will tear us apart” was the first time many people, myself included, had heard them. I was 11 at the time and in Manchester, but until the suicide they were unknown to me and my contemporaries.
    I think that when the music and lyrics of Joy Division are considered, their value is always coloured by the suicide and the mythmaking process that followed. To the question of what touched Curtis and Joy Division, you really have to go back to 1970s Manchester, the cultural milieu surrounding the band, and the resonating scenes in other Northern European post industrial cities. The search for genius shouldn’t end in a false singularity.

  11. Landing here by chance again many moons later: LV I do totally agree with you. I lived through those times and saw Joy Division play at Brussels’s legendary Plan K venue. It always makes kind of an impression on younger people: “WOW! You got to see Joy Division!!!”, to which I reply that there were just an interesting band among many other übertalented bands that played there (think of Tuxedomoon, for instance) and they were by no means singled out from these bands, that were all practically unknown from the larger public (you had to navigate into Brussels’ “alternative” scene to be aware of those bands). I’m totally certain that all this fame now attached to Joy Division originates in the suicide of this young good-looking lad named Ian Curtis. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean that this band was uninteresting. To the contrary: they were very good but not more than other bands that were their contemporaries.

  12. Banjo says:

    As has been mentioned, you have to bear in mind that this is the film version of Deborah Curtis’ book, not a dissection of Joy Division and their frankenstein-like talent

    As someone who was there (or thereabouts) at the time, and got to see the band play five times, it strikes me as being authentic enough. Maybe it doesn’t answer the question of why Ian killed himself, but that’s because we simply don’t know

    If you haven’t seen the film, I would recomend that you do, if only for the flavour of a long-gone time that it provides