When Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, hung himself in 1980, at 23, the doomy mystery of his suicide cast its shadow backward over the mythology of the band. It sealed their status as generationally morose punk prophets. The provocation of Control, the haunting Curtis biopic directed by Anton Corbijn, is that in shining a light on what really happened to Curtis, it undoes his image as the hip depressive bard of the Manchester music scene.
Sam Riley, who plays Curtis, looks eerily like him, with that dashing yet slightly androidal bug-eyed handsomeness. He’s mesmerizing in the concert scenes, where he and the other actors perform live, duplicating the surging hypno drone that made Joy Division sound like something out of a bombed-out East Berlin disco. Riley flings his arms around in Curtis’ spasmodic martial strut, which was like a robot parody of one of his epileptic fits (a condition he addressed in ”She’s Lost Control,” arguably Joy Division’s greatest song). He also sounds exactly like Curtis — that is, like a Jim Morrison who had already seen The End.
Working in lustrous wide-screen black and white, Corbijn juxtaposes the godless glory of Joy Division’s music with a hero whose ironic fate is that he never lost his innocence. A sweet, moody kid who grows up addicted to Iggy, Bowie, and Roxy Music, Curtis dives into marriage, then parenthood, with his doting sweetheart (Samantha Morton), and even once the band hits, he toils away at an employment office, trying to be a good family man. But the temptations of rock stardom render his domestic life claustrophobically drab. (The drugs he’s forced to take for his epilepsy bedevil him even further.) Once he falls into an on-the-road affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), he’s split like Hamlet between his two lives. What the film never quite answers is: Why doesn’t Curtis simply abandon his marriage, like a thousand celebrities — and confused young men — before him? Instead, poisoned by guilt, he martyrs himself to the ” normal” existence he can’t live up to. I’m not sure if I believe that’s all there was to Curtis’ tragedy, but Control goes past the clichés of punk rock-god gloom to offer a snapshot of alienation that’s shockingly humane. B+