Control Is Shaky, at Best
Mercifully, perhaps, this post is going to be short. Partly that’s because nearly everything I might write is on offer in this previous post. To recap, there I lamented the strategies deployed by the producers of El Cantante, ones that reprised every music biopic cliché. While I’ve yet to read any reviews of the film under discussion here, I’m fairly certain that at least some of the other writers share my disappointment.
This time out, the subject is something I saw Thursday night: Control, Anton Corbijn’s filmic adaptation of Touching from a Distance. The book was written by Deborah Curtis, the widow of Ian Curtis—who briefly enjoyed minor celebrity status as the singer of the post-punk group Joy Division. As depicted onscreen, Ian Curtis’s life was a tragic one, where ambivalence about stardom, marriage and family, on one hand, and increasingly intense epileptic seizures, on the other, led him to commit suicide on the eve of the band’s departure for its first U.S. tour. That’s also the story that anyone who knows anything about the band already knows, and that’s part of the problem with the film: it doesn’t add anything to or otherwise complicate the well-known narrative.
Moreover, as was the case with El Cantante, the work that musicians put into their craft is overlooked in favor of the standard genius narrative. Someone watching the film would have to take on faith that the band ever rehearsed or had disagreements about their musical direction. Additionally, while I’ll grant that the film is about Curtis, the other band members seem to be mere props in the story, supporting characters who allowed the singer to shine but otherwise did little else of import. Perhaps even more damaging is the paltry amount of time given to recognizing the contributions of engineer/producer Martin Hannett, the person largely responsible for the band’s sound on record. He sometimes made crucial choices, as most stories—including the one told in 24-Hour Party People (2002)—indicate, without the band’s consent. Hannett (or, more accurately, the actor portraying him) appears on screen for less than three minutes, and I don’t recall his name even being mentioned.
Still, it wasn’t a total disaster. Corbijn’s background in photography and his keen eye make the film, shot in black and white, visually stunning. At least once in each scene, there’s a moment when it seems as though viewers are looking at a beautiful, perfectly framed photograph. Corbijn’s attention to detail yields other dividends, but perhaps only for those obsessive enough to have tracked down extant video footage of the band. His recreation of the set for the band’s first televised appearance, on the late Factory Records head Tony Wilson’s programme (yeah, I have to use the British spelling) Granada Reports/Granada Television was nothing short of breathtaking, and the actors uncannily replicated the movements and gestures of the band during that segment (viewable in its original form here).
More than likely, I’ll still pony up the cash for the DVD, whenever it’s released. And even more certainly, I’ll keep waiting for a biopic that does justice to a musician and not just to his mythology…