'Control' director finds discomfort and joy

A few years ago, noted rock photographer/video director Anton Corbijn refused to rest on his laurels. He wanted clues to what had originally spurred his now-tireless pursuit of visual arts.

He went back to the island where he was born in Holland to see what had motivated him, he says. When he got to his village of Strijen, he realized there was nothing there: “Everything that had moved me was from outside the island, and I'd wanted to be part of it, I wanted to be somebody.” He documented the trek in a photo book, “A Somebody,” and slammed the lid on his bleak past.

Or so he thought.

Corbijn,52, had toyed with the idea of jumping to full-length features, but pushed away scripts, thinking other directors would do them better.

In a thick accent, he says, “But when this came along, I had an emotional connection to the story as well as visual, so I thought that might compensate for any lack of technical skill. That's why I dared to take this project on.”

The assignment was a little black-and-white biopic dubbed “Control.”

It tells the tragic tale of Joy Division, the legendary post-punk combo that splintered after only two albums when frontman Ian Curtis hung himself at age 23. Based on the book “Touching From a Distance” by Curtis' widow Deborah (played to tortured effect by Samantha Morton), and starring haunted-eyed newcomer Sam Riley as the somber singer, “Control” depicts a man who had everything, gradually losing it.

Corbijn weaves the band's cryptic Factory catalog (“Unknown Pleasures,” “Closer” and the live coda “Still,” all reissued by Rhino this week in deluxe two-disc remasters) through concert scenes, as Riley contorts himself into Curtis' spasmodic stage presence. By the time the signature “Atmosphere” wafts into the closing credits, you feel a profound sense of loss for this troubled talent snuffed out before his time.

Corbijn can pinpoint the outside voice he heard calling as a kid _ that of Curtis, whom he first met shortly after moving to London in 1979.

“Joy Division was really the catalyst for me leaving my country,” he says. “Those albums were so mysterious, and they seemed to capture the zeitgeist at the time.”

Hired upon his arrival by rock magazine NME, he was offered his first Joy Division shoot in November, and was invited to the band's native Manchester for a second sitting the following April. By May, Curtis was dead.

“So the movie starts out quite optimistic,” Corbijn explains. “Ian's a young boy, just starting to express himself. Then it takes a turn for the worse, as he starts to internalize his emotion and become withdrawn. And it's not a very American film _ it's very European. Both the cinematographer and myself are from Northern Europe, informed by people like Godard and Tarkovsky, directors who leave things open to interpretation.”

Now that he's become a somebody in a new field, the photographer finally may get some Strijen closure. “Influences like Joy Division were so much a part of my young life,” he admits. “But with this movie I want to close the book on that chapter and move on to more recent influences. Things from, say, the last 10 years maybe?”

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