'Control:' A New Spin on Rock Tragedy

Sam Riley plays lead singer Ian Curtis i i

Sam Riley plays lead singer Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn's Control. Dean Rogers/The Weinstein Company hide caption

itoggle caption Dean Rogers/The Weinstein Company
Sam Riley plays lead singer Ian Curtis

Sam Riley plays lead singer Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn's Control.

Dean Rogers/The Weinstein Company

The year is 1977, and 20-year-old Ian Curtis is living with his folks, falling for and marrying his best friend's girlfriend, working a day job, and playing with his buddies in a band they call Joy Division. Like most Manchester bands that get a little traction with the public, they spend all their time playing in tiny clubs for peanuts.

But unlike most bands, they also attract the attention of Tony Wilson, a TV rock-show host, who offers to mention their extended play disk on the air — a break that somehow feels anticlimactic when it happens. The group needs to appear on the show themselves, and Wilson soon agrees to host them.

Now this is probably starting to sound like every other singer biography Hollywood's ever made, so let me back up a bit.

Control is about losing control, but it's very precisely made. It's in black-and-white, partly as a nod to the bleakness of the songs, and partly because first-time director Anton Corbijn made his name as a still photographer — he shot photos of the real Joy Division in 1979 — and he knows the value of keeping images pristine.

Just as important, he's kept the music pristine. He has the actors performing the songs live on camera, and the effect is striking. Actor Sam Riley is a near double for the real Ian Curtis, and clutching the microphone as if it's the only thing keeping him standing, he's plenty persuasive.

In fact, the mimicry is good enough that at times, the film feels almost like a documentary, following its leading man from the apartment he shares with a wife he married too young, to the clubs where he sings of the loss and disaffection he increasingly feels personally. Riley captures very precisely Curtis's weird stage affect, swinging his arms between choruses in a frenzied, spasmodic way that looks not unlike the epileptic fits that sometimes felled him on stage. Those fits would come with increasing frequency as Joy Division's fame grew, and as the singer got caught up in the stress of an affair.

Pressures mounted, and Curtis, for whom alienation had become more than just a punk pose by this point, ended up hanging himself on the eve of what was to be Joy Division's first American tour. He had always wanted to escape Manchester, and perhaps the saddest thing in Control, is that the film makes it clear that he was about to.

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