If you came of age in the '80s and were none too happy about it, chances are Ian Curtis was your patron saint. Robert Smith and Siouxsie Sioux — with their teased-out-to-here goth-fros and grim, near-literary lyrics — may have popularized morose pop-rock, while Morrissey managed to both glorify and coyly satirize tortured teen angst. But no one embodied the sprit of jet-black post-punk better than Joy Division and its very literally agonized frontman. Turning his sunken, blank eyes, distant monotone and spastic performance style into assets rather than debits, the epileptic Curtis — in the few short years before hanging himself, at age 23 — inspired legions of followers in both music and life, kindred souls who longed to connect in an uncaring, postindustrial world.
The surprise and great accomplishment of director Anton Corbijn's new Curtis biopic, then, is not that it gets inside the head of one of rock's mythic, tragic brooders — it doesn't, and doesn't make any pretense toward doing so — but rather, Control demythologizes the man who launched a thousand goth bands (and the ten thousand whiny emo descendents they launched). Corbijn started a career in rock photography specifically so he could shoot Joy Division, and he brings to the material the sort of intimacy only a fan could: He lets the music, setting and atmosphere do most of the talking, and leaves us a portrait of Curtis that utterly humanizes him without sacrificing his essential mystery.
The opening stretch of the film feels unlike any rock biopic ever made. Shooting in high-contrast black and white, Corbijn lavishes attention on Curtis' drab teen existence in Macclesfield, England: These are people who live against a stark, geometric backdrop of tenement flats, factory smokestacks and institutional hovels, with nothing but the sparest decorations and outdated curtains on the walls to liven things up. Amid the squalor, Curtis (played by newcomer Sam Riley) emerges as a sort of agoraphobic everyteen, holed up in his bedroom listening to Aladdin Sane and practicing his best Ziggy Stardust moves. He's not someone destined for fame, exactly: Although prone to quoting Wordsworth and Lou Reed in equal measure, he's not a savant but rather an obsessive fan needing one big push into action.
He gets it when he meets the singer-less members of the band Warsaw. Still, Corbijn, unlike countless other biopic directors, doesn't portray their rise to success as Joy Division as a foregone conclusion. The drudgery of playing thankless, underpaid gigs while working your day job — in Curtis' case, at an employment agency for the handicapped — is acutely felt here, as is the conundrum of being an up-and-coming rock star while having a wife (played by Samantha Morton) and child. The songs provide the only real release in Control, and Riley's uncanny approximation of Curtis' jerky moves, shot with unerring authenticity, make for some of the most electric musical numbers in recent memory. The film will make instant converts out of anyone who doesn't "get" how Joy Division's spare, stark, controlled music could have ever been considered exhilarating.
Where Control falters — and it's not an insignificant flaw — is in its portrayal of the women in Curtis' life. Morton is a talented, visceral actress, and, as Debbie Curtis, she manages moments of grace early on in the relationship, as well as palpable pain when her husband takes a mistress. But Debbie seems to have been designed to represent the crushing routine of suburban life and little else (surprising, considering that the real Debbie Curtis' biography formed the basis of Control's script). The roadie rock-journalist lover Annik is barely sketched in: While the actress Alexandra Maria Lara is stunning to look at, she isn't given anything to do but gaze beatifically at Curtis while he's performing. Thus, the singer's crushing sense of guilt and confusion — best represented in the scene where he breaks down crying while making love to his wife — isn't given the weight it needs.
But Corbijn has a fallback in Riley: Whenever the film loses its course, all it needs is a close-up of his profound, deliberate gaze to snap it back into focus. It's a performance that requires the actor to be almost entirely internalized, and yet take on all the physical characteristics of a well-documented celebrity. Were Joy Division a household name, Riley would merit Oscar consideration; for fans, it'll be as if their idol were revived from the dead. Not that anyone that doomy would want that, of course.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
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