Shadowplay

Recently, I watched Control, the Anton Corbijn film about Joy Division's Ian Curtis. The film is shot in black-and-white, which does everything to preserve the images one has about the group: colorless and of another time; as if the band, even while it existed, had never truly been accessible, barely existing beyond filmic lore. It's always hard to watch a film whose sadness permeates before the opening shot is revealed. There's a sense of heaviness to committing oneself to watch a movie that can only have one inevitable ending.

Yet despite that, and likely due to Control's magnificent performances, I couldn't help but be dragged into the life and into the living, breathing man who was Ian Curtis, making his onscreen death actually seem unbelievable. I pointlessly and pitifully hoped for a Hollywood ending — some Spielberg rendition wherein Ian Curtis is alive, working on soundtracks, writing poetry and prepping a reunion tour.

What I loved most about the movie was that it reminded me what a punk band Joy Division was. In the days following my viewing of Control, I kept the group's records on my turntable, the songs strange and strained. When I think about Joy Division's music, I think mostly of their legacy, their successors and their sphere of influence. And that makes me think of them as more fully formed than they really were. But hearing their music again, it has the unpolished and unsure footing of early outings. It isn't immature so much as splendidly unhindered.

Watch Joy Division in color:

What is it about those bands that break up after one album, or whose output is cut short by tragedy? They capture our imaginations in a way much different than the living, than the still-existing, than the stories whose chapters continue to unfold. What constitutes fleeting: one album? Two? None at all? Those early and untimely leavers disappoint us much less often —beyond, of course, the ultimate betrayal of being gone in the first place. It's nearly impossible not to wonder what the evolution would have been; how the music would have progressed. Maybe, sadly, nowhere, or at least nowhere more beautiful. But we'll never know. I suppose films like Control partially exist to both remind us what was and what could have been, and to remember to appreciate what, thankfully, still is.

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Maybe the evolution of love for a band is similar to the maturation of love for a person. At first it's romantic and feverish, then it becomes more mature, familiar and friendly with frequent fond recollections of (dear god, I'm quoting Streisand) "the way we were."

Imagine the romantic love being ripped away from you at the peak of your emotional attachment. Now, in the previous sentence, replace "the romantic love" with "your favorite band." Emotional symmetry.

Quotation marks, sentence fragments, run-on sentences. I think that I've actually kind of annoyed myself here.

Sent by Chad - Hungary for Turkey | 3:48 PM | 8-13-2008

As a huge Joy Division fan, I'm embarassed to admit that I have not yet seen this film. I've heard wonderful things about it, having listened to Anton Corbjin's interview on Fresh Air and reading a few reviews of it, but I've been unable to find it. I'm pretty sure its now moving to the top of my list of things to see in the near future (sorry, Pineapple Express).

More to Carrie's point; I think that what enthralls listeners and captures the public's eye about bands who die off after an album, or flat out die off, is the tragedy of it. The very definition of the word denotes the loss of something before it had reached full potential (which is why a young person dying is viewed as "tragic," while a very old person's death is viewed as "sad, but expected"). I was saddened to hear of the death of Johnny Cash, for example, but the death of Ian Curtis, to me, is truly tragic. I suppose if there is any silver lining to the dark legacy of the band, it's that its remaining members had the tenacity to reform as New Order and continue making music (some of it even popular) to this day.

Sure, Joy Division was punk. They were a lot of things, but I've always found that they defy easy classification. Their attitude certainly was punk, and punk's influence is easily heard in their music, but even in their short existence they added so much more, and in turn became highly influential, that it's almost unbelievable. Odd yet beautiful synth harmonies and hollow echoing drum beats, Ian Curtis's deep and mournful voice, lyrics that spoke frankly but sincerely about topics ranging from suicide to murder to alienation, love and loss. Even now, I'm unable to listen to The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Cure, or even Depeche Mode with out thinking of Joy Division and their heavy influence on the next generation (1980's) of music. It may have been Morning in America and Britain under Reagan and Thatcher, but Joy Division's bleak, beautiful influence ensured it was going to be partly cloudy, at best.

Sent by Ryan | 4:15 PM | 8-13-2008

yes! such a great movie. So good in some weird way I regret seeing it in the theater.

Sent by esme | 4:51 PM | 8-13-2008

"Ian, come to bed love". What a woeful under-use of Samantha Morton's acting talent.

Sent by Julia | 5:27 PM | 8-13-2008

I feel that Joy Division's influence is sort of a trendy farce newly founded by the information age. I didn't hear people blubbering on and on about them 7 years ago.

Check out the young sound of Scotland,.. Josef K is great start.

The Cure influenced by Joy Divsion? You got to be kidding me..

I love Josef K. I have some singles that I bought in the UK a few years back. -CB

Sent by daniel | 5:31 PM | 8-13-2008

While reading I was reminded of The Exploding Hearts. Though not nearly as influential, they were extremely talented, unique, and seemingly on the brink of something amazing when it all ended tragically. Thanks for another wonderfully thoughtful post Carrie.

Sent by ryan | 5:33 PM | 8-13-2008

Is it perhaps that we get to keep loving the band just as it is if it is tragically ended after an album or two? That is, we don't have to qualify our love? I'm thinking here of the Rolling Stones, whom I love...up to and including Exile on Main Street. I always include that coda, and have done so since sometime in the 80s, after I recovered from my punk hatred of everything that wasn't punk. Bands (or performers) who end after one or two brilliant albums don't have a chance to release the dud, or to contemplate long-term career strategies and maintenance of a fan base. Some bands manage to keep it fresh and interesting, but most don't, alas. That doesn't mean that they don't continue to be good or even great, just that the surprises are fewer and far between.

Sent by Norma | 5:48 PM | 8-13-2008

I saw control first chance I got when it came out, and I wasn't disappointed.
Joy Division, like many other bands that ended in similar circumstances, have captured the imagination and interest of music lovers everywhere. It's amazing to listen to their material (which is still remarkable) and just wonder how different things could be.

Sent by Arran | 5:55 PM | 8-13-2008

What about the band the remaining members of joy division evolved into: New Order. I think new order definitely provides a glimpse into what joy division would have become.

Listen to the versions of ceremony by joy division and by new order.

Sent by valr | 6:13 PM | 8-13-2008

Great clip. I saw this movie in a theatre and the atmosphere was a bit intense, a guy with a visible "Love Will Tear Us Apart" tattoo, a lesbian couple sitting behind me, one of whom (wearing an Unknown Pleasures shirt) was sobbing when the end credits rolled, her girlfriend consoling her. As for the film, it was so good (perfect art direction, eerily exact performances, claustrophobic mood, etc.) that I ended up feeling that it was more a grotesque display of quality than a film made by someone who understands what art is supposed to do. (I have this same problem with Corbijn's too pretty photos.) Not to mention that each scene felt kind of rote. Even the jokes ("Oh, well, at least you're not in The Fall.") felt insular and self-congratulatory. I kept thinking, "What if I'd never heard any of these songs before? What if I didn't love this group? What if I didn't even know what I was looking at?" There's a critical consensus around the film, I know, but I just kind of felt it had a sterile quality, more like an artfully conducted medical procedure than a story about a person. Sorry if this sounds like the rant of a snob, but I think Joy Division's records say everything. To watch an actress re-enact the moment when she finds Curtis' body sort of cheapens a reality that only needs to be evoked in order to horrify the imagination. In black-and-white real time, though, my imagination has nothing to do. The film does my thinking for me.

Sent by Terry | 6:13 PM | 8-13-2008

Hi Carrie,

I loved reading your article about this film. I love films and music, and when a good film is made about a musical act; I think this is the ultimate in film-making because two mediums of creativity are joined together. This is usually done with movie soundtracks, but this doesn't impact me as much as films about music. I also love "punk rock music", and think back to a film called "Sid & Nancy" which as I'm sure you know is about Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and his girlfriend Nancy who both went down a road of destruction. As for the movie "Control", I'm definitely going to see this film; and will add a post to my blog with links to here and the movie. Check my blog out at: www.taitsmovie-musicblog.com

Sent by Tait | 10:35 PM | 8-13-2008

Wow, Terry! Excellent post! It's refreshing to read opposing comments, especially those that are so well thought out.

On an overly self-analytical note:
Am I the only one that feels like a crippled monkey when trying to post comments to such well written blogs?

Sent by Chad - Hungary for Turkey | 11:19 PM | 8-13-2008

A somewhat cynical perspective might be that artists who promise much and sadly never have the opportunity to deliver it save us from inevitable disappointment. As much as we deify, say, Dylan, we're still aware that he's dropped a few clunkers in our midst from time to time; at least post-motorcycle accident, his career has been one of peaks and valleys, and his commitment to continued artistic growth has meant occasional failure. Who knows if (blasphemous musings ahead) Buddy Holly might not have made a twist cash-in record, or Sandy Denny a "new country" single or two? Would Sam Cooke or Otis Redding have been forced to work on Nile Rodgers-produced disco bombast? (Hmm - actually, Diana Ross did that....) Taken from us tragically when they were, they never really had the chance to let us down.

(On a related note - the 'one-off' artist, who produces one or two great works and is barely noticed before or since, may not have the same aura of unfulfilled promise but fascinates me almost as much. Whether the reasons are economic, a lack of inspiration, or simply that the artist had one big thing to say, said it, and was done, part of the wonder for me of listening to "Forever Changes" or reading "Call It Sleep," for example, is that they're singular works - nothing else Arthur Lee and company or Henry Roth did before or since can compare with them. They feel like mysterious touches of grace, not fitting into any larger, traceable progression of work.)

Oh, and - note to Chad: No, you're not the only one. :)

Sent by Darren | 6:57 AM | 8-14-2008

brainiac strikes me as a band that was tragically cut down in its prime, leaving a legacy of imitators in their wake.

Sent by mccormack | 12:35 PM | 8-14-2008

I love those little inserts in the singles! A couple great CD comps have come out in the last couple years.

this blog got me also thinking about that new Germs movie coming out. Might be corny .. but fun. Like that Dogtown Z boys movie (had a great Ledger performance!).

I just hope they don't dwell too much on the scenes from Deline of Western Civilization.

Sent by daniel | 2:06 PM | 8-14-2008

i really enjoyed control but also thought michael winterbottom's 24 hour party people did a great job of dealing with curtis' legacy and the band's music in general, its a very different movie but an equally important point-of-view.

Sent by paulb | 3:27 PM | 8-14-2008

The thing about bands whose time is cut short, be it by simple break-ups to untimely deaths, is the fact that they cannot ever disappoint. You don't have to worry about them changing. My favorite: Mother Love Bone (one major label release, Apple [1990]). Unfortunately, they will go down in history as a forerunner to Pearl Jam (it was Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard's band directly before PJ). In my mind they could have easily been a great band with worldwide success, if not for the death of vocalist/pianist Andrew Wood from a heroine overdose. I have collected their music through eBay and other such sources, but because of their one release (I don't count the self-titled album, as it was a reissue of Apple plus a couple of other songs), I miss something I never had: more music by this great band.

Sent by Sherman | 5:13 PM | 8-14-2008

Every note of Joy Division fills me with near-fatal mix of nostalgia and longing. I wonder how much of my reaction is related to my knowledge of Ian Curtis' suicide. And how much is related to the fact that when I discovered them shortly after his death, I was young and the world was still exhilarating and darkly mysterious to me and that try as I might, I can't ever feel exactly that way anymore.

Sent by m-argo | 8:27 PM | 8-14-2008

2 things:

1. bernard sumner has said that ian curtis was the one responsible for bringing synth/keyboards to the band and he felt it was ian pointing them in the direction to take after his death.

2. as much as i loved "control" i had this weird fantasy that it would be made with a hollywood ending! that would have been a weirdly original film though i can see why it wasn't done that way. let's be thankful that i'm not anton corbijn because i would have made it that way.

Sent by Gage | 8:43 PM | 8-14-2008

I was talking about Control today over dinner. It's such an outstanding film and even though I knew the outcome, I was completely caught up in Curtis' life and success.

I think the actors were brilliant and watching them perform was riveting, I heard the actor who played Curtis did all the singing.

Joy Division was cut short in their prime but their brightness and pure energy live on. (sigh....)

Sent by setya | 1:42 AM | 8-15-2008

Valr, yes you bring up a great point. I loved the end of Control when they are morning Ian's death and Gillian comes over to hug Steve and the camera pans over to the four of them, just sitting there. I loved that moment.

It's weird because I think of the Joy Division/New Order continuation in a way like Pink Floyd with and without Syd Barrett. Losing the main singer/songwriter and still able to continue and grow. Moreover what about all that music that Bernard Sumner ended up writing? Would we never have heard Blue Monday, Age of Consent, or Perfect Kiss if Ian were still alive?

There is a really great Joy Division documentary that was made like a year ago and it was interesting to see how close the movie is to actual accounts from the band. Anyway, great movie great band; and I am glad that the band continued to make great music even though I am sad that Ian Curtis died.

And to the person who mentioned 24 Hour Party People, I thought they did a good job covering Ian's death and the birth of New Order as well.

Sent by jen | 1:32 AM | 8-16-2008

I loved this movie. It affected me for days after as well, and I found myself pulling out all my old JD and listening to it for hours on end. I can't recommend this film enough.

Sent by Rachel | 7:48 PM | 8-16-2008

As someone is a HUGE Joy Division fan, its great to see so many other people who loved the band, sometimes I feel I'm the only one (even if everyone knows all the words to Bizarre Love Triangle). I even got a used copy of the book this is based on, written by his wife and long out of print, if you can find a copy, grab it. Also the 33.3 series about them, as well as ... well, I think I've probably read everything ever written about them! There are a lot of contradictions, of course, which just makes it all the more fun. I think if you are willing to do this, you might just get a sense of what kind of person Ian was.

Sent by ernie | 1:41 PM | 8-17-2008

indeed, Joy Division is my uncle's favorite band...i love them too and obviously they influenced Interpol A WHOLE LOT. still, i think i can only watch control once (like flight 93), and i need to be in the right mood to watch it. lovely post.

Sent by hmd1987 | 3:34 PM | 8-17-2008

This song by Joy Division has a guitar , base, and drum sound that is THE generic rock sound.
They have managed to ape the billion bands that went before with the exact same guitqr sound, base sound, and drum sound.
I'm impressed by their refusal to try anything that would in any way be innovative or unique.
Generic rock is the greatest.

Sent by Tom Hendricks | 9:19 PM | 8-17-2008

I love the oppressiveness of music but joy division is i think slightly overrated and for the why we love bands with tragedy partly due to not wanting to have to explain the crappy albums partly and because we in someways wish we could all make an impact before dying

Sent by Cecil | 2:08 AM | 8-18-2008

I listened to New Order/Joy Division lots over the years but couldn't understand why a stills photographer would want to make a feature film where he re-created his own work as moving image. That is like admitting the original stills weren't good enough or that Curtis' music wasn't either. It smacks of the same kind of 'I want to control the public perception of a great artist' as Todd Haynes' I'm not there. Maybe Corbijn's title was a super ironic joke? 24 hour party people was self aware about myth making but watching a failed pop star pretending to be a good one just doesn't appeal. I did like the story about Corbijn asking the lead to do 'the dance' for him every time he felt insecure about his casting choice. I'm glad so many more people are listening to Joy Division but I'm confused that they need to know exactly how desperate the end of the singer's life was to do so. When ever I'm listening to Pink Moon I don't think to myself 'this music would be so much better if I had a thorough understanding of Nick drake's self loathing and a blow by blow account of his death'.

Sent by Charles McConnel | 12:58 PM | 8-18-2008

I just saw this movie recently too and it started me on a whole Joy Division revival, which I already did a few years ago when "24 Hour Party People" came out. I recommend a fairly new documentary, simply titled "Joy Division," that's a really good companion piece to this film. It's available on Netflix (which I would marry if I could). I think it was the band's roadie who expressed the opinion that U2 became the band that Joy Division would have been - i.e., a band that is more or less universally liked by fans of a variety of genres, etc. Imagining a world in which Joy Division went on that U.S. tour is fascinating. Would they have broken up anyway? Would Ian Curtis have come to the same end? Consider a band like the Sound - great records, small sales, suicide - same basic template, but a different story. Why did one's legacy go so far, and not the other? Fodder for many a beer-fueled debate by record fanatics

Sent by Zoe | 1:50 PM | 8-19-2008

The idea that "comfortable people don't make great art" is a pretty kickass point and something that gets reinforced in almost every great piece of music I've ever listened to.

Ignoring issues of specific cultural constructs and what defines Americana and all that jazz, the more encyclopedic my music-listening habits get, the more I can't help but think that rebellion isn't just helpful to great art, but probably necessary. Rebellion and discontent gave us The Clash, The Velvet Underground, X, the Pixies, etc. Comfort and the status-quo gave us smooth jazz made by people not familiar with Charlie Parker and, hell, I dunno, Hillary Duff changing the lyrics in My Generation to "I hope I DON'T die before I get old."

Sent by Kaleb H. | 8:03 AM | 8-20-2008

hmmm..I appreciate what you're saying but not knowing much about Curtis or Joy Division going in I came out thinking he was a bit of a drama queen for topping himself just because he got caught cheating on his missus and didn't like the fans. I know you can argue against me but this was my impression. So i guess what i'd like to know is was he a lightweight who screwed around on his wife then cried his wee eyes out when he got caught or did the movie not portray his anxieties and personal issues in enough depth to justify him topping himself? This has bugged me since i saw the flick.

Sent by Adam | 4:40 AM | 8-21-2008

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