Curtis was the lead singer in Joy Division, the British band that rose to prominence, with its unsmiling hymns to dislocation and loss, in the late nineteen-seventies and came to an unnatural end when Curtis hanged himself, in 1980, at the age of twenty-three. Given all that, we could be forgiven for expecting the worst from Corbijn’s film. Good grief, it’s even shot in black-and-white: what more could the miserabilists want? Yet “Control” has an unmistakable pulse: a wiry, electric tension between the extraordinary spectacle of Curtis at maximum surge—clinging to the microphone for dear life, or stepping away from it and swinging his arms in a frantic march to nowhere—and the dented ordinariness of which his undear life, like ours, was mostly composed.
Curtis came from Macclesfield, in the Northwest of England. Early on, we see him as a dreamy schoolboy, posing shirtless in front of the bedroom mirror, mouthing along to Bowie’s “Jean Genie.” In this respect, he was no different from a million other youths. When he says, of his home town, “I’ve wanted to escape it my whole life,” the wish is as well worn as the place itself, and there is something both agonizing and typical in the knowledge that he died on the eve of true escape—the band was on the verge of leaving for its first American tour. “I’ve got my clothes all laid out on the bed and everything,” the guitarist, Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), says over the phone to Curtis. He sounds like a ten-year-old going off to camp.
Curtis married a local girl, Deborah (Samantha Morton), when both were teen-agers. She had absolutely no wish to flee their existence, and much of the movie’s sorrow springs from Morton’s amazing ability to invest comfort and companionship—the easy-listening emotions, as it were, not the rock-and-roll ones—with a dignity and a music of their own. Hence her despair when he falls for somebody else, a Belgian admirer named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara). Because Morton is so convincing, and because the film refuses to scoff at her homely virtues, you feel torn by Curtis’s betrayal. Step back a second, however, and you think, This guy slept with just one groupie? Shouldn’t he get a medal for restraint?
If that balance of our loyalties is maintained throughout, it’s because “Control” has a beautiful poise of its own. This is Corbijn’s first film; he made his name as a still photographer, and took pictures of Joy Division in 1979. The monochrome of the movie could be construed as a nod to the songs, some of which do more with a monotone—Curtis weaving his momentous moan around a single note—than you would believe possible. Thanks to the soft shine of the black-and-white images, we come to know, with a peculiar fondness, the singer’s house on the corner of a Macclesfield street, and the regular sight of him returning there like a soldier with his duffelbag. For sheer lustre, though, nothing can match the first shot of Annik, dancing dark-eyed at a Joy Division concert; one look at her and you can predict the trouble to come.
Everything that is good about “Control” is nailed in one sequence. Curtis walks along the street, the thud of the soundtrack keeping pace with his tread. The camera moves around to view him from behind, and we see the word “HATE” daubed on the back of his jacket. All his rebellion is there, but somehow the scene zings with more sprightliness than gloom, and there is still a twist to come. As he heads toward the local Employment Exchange, we presume that, as an artist and a hater, he must be on the dole, but no: he works there, in a shirt and tie, finding jobs for other people. Those who worship Joy Division may bridle at Corbijn’s film for its reluctance to mythologize their hero. Speaking as someone so irretrievably square that I not only never listened to the band but didn’t even know anyone who liked it, I can’t imagine a tribute more fitting than this. “He’s quite famous now, isn’t he?” someone asks Deborah at a party. “Not to me,” she replies. “I still wash his underpants.”