Band Apart

It’s impossible to say whether Ian Curtis — the young,
tragic voice of Joy Division, born of post-punk’s first rumblings and gone with
the close of the technicolored ’70s — would have progressed and achieved enough
in later in life, had he not hung himself from the kitchen ceiling, to warrant
the now-insatiable fascination with the potential that shrines his long-dead
enigma.

So, though no fan-in-hindsight can help but wring the
details of Curtis’ short life and sudden death for answers, we must keep in
mind that every nuance in his tortured artistry would hold far less weight if
not for the shadow of its looming end. We must consider the possibility that
his miniature legacy — two haunting albums and a handful of shakily videotaped,
volatile performances — was all he had in him, all he was meant to deliver our
mortal world.

“When I’m up there singing, they don’t understand how much I
give,” narrates Curtis, portrayed in “Control” by Sam Riley, during a
tour-induced breakdown. “How it affects me. I never meant for it to grow like
this. I’ve no control anymore.”

A recent explosion of interest in the legend of Joy Division
(especially its suicidal centerpiece) has scattered many an ode to better
remember them by: a re-remastered box set, a prying documentary and now the
black-and-white biopic known simply as “Control,” directed by longtime
photog-to-the-rock-stars Anton Corbijn and starring spitting-image newcomer Sam
Riley. But that certain haziness in the band’s graspability — the mystery that
has always pulled us closer — seems only to deepen with every resurrection’s
attempt at pinpointing the strength of Joy Division’s emotional grip.

It’s not surprising, then, that the only criticism this
festival-favorite seems to receive is for its inability to explain the method
to Curtis and the band’s unlikely genius. In timeline sequence, the film runs a
highly simplistic, unanalytical course between one man’s personal and public
turmoil (mostly set in Macclesfield, England, the no-breathing-room hometown
that Curtis never left). Every monumental life decision — marriage, baby,
mistress — is represented in short, detached clips stripped of all unnecessary
dialogue and score, which does chisel for us all the cold, oft-silent beauty of
Curtis’ world, but pays for its aesthetic with a deficiency in clues as to Joy
Division’s most buried secret: Where on earth did that sound come from? Surely,
no arbitrary sum of influences could have let loose the tumbling, whirring,
scraping obsessions of their loosened strings, stalked by a percussive hunger,
stricken with the untrained voice of human isolation itself — all in the most
minimal, animalistic ways possible, hollow and huge and yet so unassuming as to
seem almost nonmusical in nature. Surely, no accident?

The singular abstracted scene in “Control” is set to the
not-yet-existing electro-paranoia of remaining-member offspring New Order in an
unexplained whirl of psychedelic hypnosis performed by bandmate Peter Hook
(played to bloke-ish perfection by “Across the Universe” talent Joe Anderson).
We learn almost less in taking Corbijn’s filmic journey than we could from
picking through Curtis’ short stock of literal and self-revealing lyrics, used
consistently in the film to illustrate the author’s inner turbulence. “Asylums
with doors open wide/ Where people had paid to see inside/ For entertainment
they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist,’” groans
Curtis in “Atrocity Exhibition,” what would be the opening track for his
posthumous sophomore release. And that performative march-twist to which he
refers — essentially an upright, half-controlled seizure to the pulse of his
band’s dark form — is replicated to a sweaty, convulsive T by the talented
Riley, so accurate in his embodiment of Curtis’ every nuance that we almost
feel brushed by the star himself.

So for now, genius — particularly of the musical breed —
stays safely locked in the mysteries of the authorless human blueprint. Perhaps
without such a frustrating void, it would be difficult to even begin to grasp
Curtis’ depression; “Control” lets us feel that it was the lack of answers, the
incurable and side-effecting epilepsy, an idol’s inevitable seclusion — and the
goddamn quiet that blanketed him into nonexistence. And in quiet, he should
rest.

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