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It seems that there is no short supply of musical bio-pics these days. However, it seems
surprising that a film has not been made about Joy Division front man Ian Curtis. Right after his death, exhibited by people wearing shirts which read: “Ian Curtis died for your sins,” Curtis became not only a famous rock tragedy, but something of a patron saint for artists who die in part because of their expression for their art. Every indie band in the world has at one time covered “Love Will Tear us Apart,” and their musical shadow has been getting longer as time goes on.
Perhaps the reason it has taken a while for a film to be produced, is that no one has been quite sure what Ian’s death meant. Some have speculated that Curtis felt he had to die, that only in death could his art be complete. Others, that he was the victim of circumstance and terminal guilt. Or some that he just had enough of a life of physical pain. No matter how it is presented Curtis’ death is still an enigma.
It is my view,those of you who read my blog already know this, that Joy Division is the second most important band of the 20th century, after The Velvet Underground; a synthesis of the disparate elements of modernist music, the punk rock aesthetic, the kraut rock impulse, personal alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, pain, wholesale violence and spiritual loss. And Curtis the epitomized all of that(as I write this I have a picture of Curtis, hunched over in thought on my wall). That stated, the film does a marvelous job of portraying the feel of that music in its visuals. Martin Ruhe, the Director of Photography, provides, sparse, complex, often beautiful, and troubling compositions (like Joy Divisions music), in stark black and white, which makes for some of the best cinematography of the year.
What is evident viewing the film is that this was made by people who were insiders. The film is based on a book by and co-produced by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s widow. It was also produced by the late Tony Wilson, the eccentric owner of Factory records, the bands label. Wilson passed away right after filming, and Joy Divisions “Atmosphere,” which ends this film, was played at his funeral. This is the first film made by Anton Corbijn , a celebrated rock photographer, who was a fan of Joy Division, went on a pilgrimage to Manchester to see them, and took some of the iconic pictures of them. The original score is by New Order, the former members of Joy Division. All of these were people familiar with the Manchester Music scene in the late ‘70’s, knew the people, the language, the style, and knew, as best as one could, Ian Curtis. And that knowledge finds its way onto the screen. In details, there are a lot for the quick looking music fan, but also in a tenderness for all of those involved. This is at times a funny film. It is a loving film. Even though it is about infidelity, physiological distress, and death, this is equally a film about life, art, and the people it brings together.
What is interesting is that as anxious as Joy Division’s music was, the film is shot rather static. There are even several outright tableau shots; Corbijn seems quite reverential about his subject matter, and it is interesting that we never see the major events. We see what comes after the event. (cf. Terrence Mallick).
Sam Riley gives one of the best performances I’ve seen in a while. While he looks uncannily like Curtis, and sounds a little like him, this is not an impersonation (one great choice was that the actors actually perform the music live, not from tape, giving this an extremely realistic feel). He is one of those actors who acts with his eyes. But he also is able to give a startling physical performance; as we see bouts of Curtis’ epilepsy, Riley is able to manipulate his body so that it seems like he’s actually going into a seizure. Samantha Morton is also quite good as Deborah Curtis, though she does at first feel out of place among the cast of unknowns.
What separates this even more from the musical bio-pic, is that while the events are historic, this isn’t a historical travelogue. In fact the music and the history take a backseat to one of the most interesting character studies in years. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the handling of Curtis’ suicide. It is not meant to be a tear jerking moment, or a shocking moment. But a moment of frustration, of anxiety, of irony. But is it a moment of catharsis to see how a man, who wanted everyone to love him, and had everything going right in his career, managed to, by small indiscretions, lose control of everything, and end up hurting everyone? Or a moment of frustration as to how we deal with people we love but don’t seem to accept that love? Is it an expression of the hell it is to live regularly experimenting with bottles and bottles of pills to try and find the right amount to keep you going for another day? Or is this about the failing mechanism of the human body individually and the disconnected modern society, collectively? These questions are all there, as are a myriad of others, and the final shot encapsulates the complex, troubling beauty that accompanies such meditations. Before the screen goes dark we are given one line of epilogue:”Ian Curtis died on May 18, 1980. He was 23 years old.”And after 27 years that’s still all we are sure about.