Anton Corbijn’s recounting of the meteoric rise and fall of Ian Curtis, the troubled lead singer and songwriter of the late eighties British punk (or is it post-punk?) band Joy Division, is part music biography, but more kitchen-sink melodrama in the style of early John Osborne. “Control” is an effective slice of life, and—in the striking black-and-white compositions of cinematographer Martin Ruhe—visually distinctive. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Matt Greenhaigh’s script is based on a book by Curtis’ widow Deborah, it’s stronger on the domestic than the musical side of things; and even there the frequently oblique, elliptical storytelling style leaves Ian a rather hazy figure although Sam Riley plays him compellingly. The result is that Corbijn’s picture succeeds in holding your attention, but in comparison to a watershed film like Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” it comes up a bit short.
The picture opens in the early seventies, when Curtis is a thin, slightly goofy high school kid with a poetic streak and a drug habit. He finds a job in the employment office, where he quietly handles the cases of troubled locals. But on the side he takes up with Debbie (Samantha Morton, quite good though in a one-note part), the girlfriend of a buddy, and they quickly marry and have a child.
The little family’s cramped home life alters, though, when Curtis becomes the lead singer of a neighborhood pub band called Warsaw. He writes them some new material, performs the songs in a jerky, almost robotic physical style, and is instrumental in changing the band’s name to Joy Division after a Nazi military brigade. Before long they’re picked up by Factory Records, the cutting-edge label fronted by Tony Wilson (an amusingly stiff Craig Parkinson), the TV-record impresario whose story was told in Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” (2002). And their popularity grows.
But things are not well in the still-dingy Curtis home. Ian becomes involved with a gorgeous Belgian fan, Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara, pretty but vacuous) while on tour, neglecting homebody Debbie, and the onset of Curtis’ epilepsy adds to the sense that his life is unraveling. When Debbie discovers his infidelity and Ian must choose between her and Annik just as the band is preparing for its first American tour, the pressure becomes too much for him to bear.
In many ways this is the much-repeated old show-biz tale of a troubled performer who rockets to fame but can’t handle what it brings, though it’s told with visual panache and sporadic dramatic power. But it doesn’t really succeed in presenting either a persuasive case for Curtis’ musical genius or a thoroughly satisfying account of his personal turmoil. The creative process of his songwriting is barely sketched, and even the performing sequences are relatively brief and—though well pulled off by Riley and his crew—not terribly enlightening in explaining the band’s popularity. (To appreciate them one really has to be a fan already.) As for the romantic triangle, it’s played out curiously conventionally, with lots of slow, angst-ridden moments of people suffering emotional distress as they struggle to make choices about whom to stay with or leave. And despite the amount of time devoted to his demons—more than the musical story, actually—the picture never manages to get inside Curtis and make us understand the torture he’s going through.
Perhaps it would be asking too much of Corbijn, Greenhaigh and Riley to have penetrated Ian Curtis’ psyche deeply enough to explain his final decision, or to have fully recaptured the charisma of his stage presence. But it has to be said that “Control” does neither. Still, though it comes off as a rather familiar and superficial story of a rocker’s rise and fall, it has enough style—and Riley’s intensity—to compensate for the paucity of substance.