Anton Corbijn's biopic Control offers a spare, frequently beautiful portrait of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, capturing the boundless excitement of the late-'70s UK punk era as contrasted with Curtis' mundane melancholy. The problem with Control—and it's a significant problem—is that Corbijn tries too hard to mythologize Curtis' last days, by dwelling on his broken marriage, struggles with epilepsy, and dreary Manchester existence, in scenes that drag on endlessly and miserably. For a broader, livelier, less Curtis-centered version of the story, the band's fans should see Grant Gee's documentary Joy Division. Structured as an oral history, Joy Division lets a succession of band members, scenesters, and cultural commentators share their firsthand accounts of how Joy Division came together in the wake of a fateful Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, and how they quickly developed from generic anti-authoritarian punk slop into something darker, artier, and more distinctive.
Gee hits the same wall as Corbijn when he tries to convey how a married, working-class bloke like Curtis came to write songs so bleakly, timelessly poetic. With bassist Peter Hook playing lead on most songs, drummer Stephen Morris keeping a rigidly danceable beat, and guitarist Bernard Sumner providing the fine shading, Joy Division had a recognizable sound even before Curtis stepped to the microphone and moaned his prophetic visions of chaos and entropy. But when the expressionless Curtis flailed about onstage, seized by illness and inspiration, Joy Division became more than just another quartet of lads gigging for pub money.
Gee's interviewees barely consider the implications of Joy Division's almost supernatural grandeur, since most of them remember that time as a wild, entertaining ride with an unexpected end. But late Factory Records founder Tony Wilson offers a compelling theory, suggesting that Joy Division merely fed off Manchester's post-industrial decline. Wilson also believes that it took punk and new wave to bring the city back, which implies that as Curtis' creative impulse destroyed him, it saved his hometown. That's a valuable insight, especially when set to the racing mechanical clank of songs like "She's Lost Control" and "Disorder," which seem to have been written in the shadow of wrecking balls, in anticipation of the rubble.
Key features: More than an hour of bonus interviews—mostly interesting-but-insignificant anecdotes—plus a full live performance of "Transmission."