Joy Division (2007) dir. Grant Gee
I don’t know if it was coincidence or design but throughout 2007 Anton Corbijn’s feature film biopic “Control” was accompanied by Grant Gee’s traditional documentary feature “Joy Division”. Both films started at Cannes and went Toronto and although only “Control” got the traditional theatrical release, they’re back together again available on DVD today. And with the current sound of today’s music so heavily influenced by the post-punk sounds of Joy Division both films are required viewing for music fans.
Grant Gee’s documentary is as traditional as it gets for documentaries and tells the story of the band's quick rise and ending with the tragic suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. The band’s influence and high quality music notwithstanding, the film is adequate and enjoyable and the ideal compliment to Anton Corbijn's biopic masterpiece.
The film very quickly establishes the environment which gave birth to the band – the dirty and depressing industrial wasteland of 1970's Manchester. There wasn't much else to do in the city other than watch football and play music. Interviews with surviving band members (aka New Order) tells us about the angst and cyncism the four lads needed to express. Not five minutes goes by before Gee gets to the famous Sex Pistols concert in 1976 when three of the band members saw the influential show and decided to form a band.
All the benchmark moments in their history are referenced and covered. Having seen “Control” there’s actually very little to learn from the documentary that isn’t in dramatic version, but we do get to see the events told from the horse's mouth using the actual footage of the day. Both films mirror each other perfectly.
Grant Gee experiments with style throughout the film in an attempt to make the film different or special – in the beginning Gee uses a weird focus transition between interviewees, then he changes it up with a freeze-frame transition device. It all seems like an attempt inject some edge to compliment the progressiveness of the music. None of it it necessary, and often times distracting.
Grant Gee purposely avoids sex, drugs and hotel trashing. All of that stuff happened, and he cuts around this material cleverly just to let us know that “Joy Division” got their rocks off just like everybody else. But since their music is so revered the childish tour behaviour doesn’t befit the intelligence of the music. What's conspicuously missing is the participation of Ian Curtis' wife, Deborah, though Gee makes do using quotes as text on screen to get her point of view.
Joy Division is famous for its dark and depressing songs. The film examines closely the link between Curtis’ introspective lyrics and his suicide-inducing depression. One of the interesting insights is the fact that no one in the band thought twice about the lyrics. Anick, Curtis’ Belgian girlfriend, saw the seeds of death in his words and tried to alert his friends, but no avail.
Joy Division ended when Ian Curtis died, and so does the film. Of course, the remaining members of the band renamed themselves New Order and achieved even bigger success as artists. Perhaps it’s a different film, but the transition from the two bands intrigues me as much as the Joy Division story. Unfortunately I’m sorry to see this referenced only as a piece of on screen text.
After watching the documentary I can hear Joy Division in many of the critically lauded alternative bands today – “Interpol”, “The National”, “The Editors”. Though the film may not reach the height of passion and anger of say, Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols film “The Filth and the Fury”, it’s the right film to showcase and document the troubled but important history of one of music’s most influential bands. Enjoy.
Other postings to check out:
The Filth and the Fury
"Joy Division" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada and The Weinstein Company in the U.S.