Control (2007) dir. Anton Corbijn
Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton
In my best Mancunian accent, “’Control’ is focking brilliant, yeah!”. Anton Corbijn’s film documents the tragic life and death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn subverted all my expectations about the rock’n’roll genre. Though it’s a film about an artist suffering from depression, it manages to escape the downbeat nature of despair, instead examining the fear of not being able to control one’s life. It’s also the soundtrack of the year, and reminds us of the great transitional period of pop music.
Cobijn shoots the film in glorious black and white, I imagine, to recreate the feeling of watching Joy Division’s famed tele-gigs on those 14-inch black and white televisions that were common in the day. The film opens with Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) as a scrawny, quiet and somewhat anti-social 16-year-old whose drab life in working-class Manchester consists of going to school, working a lowly civil service desk job and dreaming of a musical life like his idols, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Despite his young age he falls in love with and marries his local sweetheart, Natalie (Samantha Morton). In the burgeoning years of Curtis’s career, Natalie and Curtis lead a surprisingly dull domestic life – nothing befitting the typical rock and roll lifestyle.
We get to see the traditional timeline series of events that builds Curtis’s career from wannabe musician to being the ‘it’ band of the country. We get to see their early gigs performing under the name “Warsaw”, their introduction to the famed British TV personality, Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) and their raucous manager, Rob Gretton (Tony Kebbell). Though Curtis loves his intensely loyal wife, he does succumb to the usual trappings of the on-the-road rock band lifestyle. He develops a relationship with a gorgeous Belgian fan and for the course of the film has difficulty being honest with both women. Curtis sees his life flash before his eyes when he discovers he suffers from epilepsy and is forced to depend on a pharmacy of drugs to curb the disease. Curtis’s life spirals downward as the mental depression from the drugs stunts his relationships. As a performer, his popularity still increases at the expense of a nightly battle to keep up the lively antics that has made him a star. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the film ends tragically. Curtis’ last days in his home, listening to Bowie records, is an emotional cinematic moment. The rest is rock and roll history.
Clearly Corbijn, who photographed Joy Division early in their formation, knew Curtis and the band intimately and the evidence is on the screen. Sam Riley plays Curtis with such sincerity we desperately want Curtis to find happiness. The camera loves Riley. His large doughy eyes are like a puppy dog longing for his master. The inability of Curtis to reconcile and take control of his life is so saddening - hence the title of the film. “Control” is not about sex, drugs and rock and roll, nor is it about the descent into drug-induced depression, as say, a Kurt Cobain film might be. It’s about a gentle man who, because of God’s will, reluctantly loses his control over his life.
The music is awesome. Corbijn, who has directed music videos for Depeche Mode and U2, knows his way around a stage. In the concert scenes, Corbijn turns up the volume significantly higher than the rest of the dialogue to the point where it actually feels like a real concert. The bass is cranked so loud you can actually feel it in your chest. I’ve never experienced that feeling in any other rock film before.
The heart of the film is the sympathetic performance of Sam Riley. He’s uncanny as Curtis, but eerily, could also play Pete Dougherty in a Libertines film if there ever was one. Of course, the film is tragic as well especially knowing that it was such a common disease that took him away from this world in the prime of his life. “Control” is a perfect film.