Doomed Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis is the subject of yet another music-legend biopic, Anton Corbijn’s “Control,” and seldom has anguish looked so fabulous. It’s too bad that this gritty-pretty revisit to a compelling stretch of rock history doesn’t achieve the deeper gravity that Curtis’ story demands.
Falling, structurally, about halfway between “Ray” and “Last Days,” the film chronicles the final seven years in the life of Curtis (Sam Riley), the singer-songwriter known for his jerky dance moves and a persona that, enhanced by woe-laced vocals, made misery electrifying. It’s a conventionally constructed, strikingly atmospheric dramatization of Curtis’ ascent, triumph and crumbling.
In 1973, in England's drab Manchester area, Curtis is a boredteen who admires Bowie, quotes Wordsworth, and becomes involved with Debbie Woodruff (Samantha Morton), whom he later marries. At a Sex Pistols concert, Curtis meets two musicians (James Anthony Pearson, Joe Anderson) whose band needs a singer. Eventually christened Joy Division, the group gets a record contract and achieves post-punk glory.
Success, however, can’t save Curtis from all that plagues him: epilepsy; depression; discomfort with fame; guilt over his unfaithfulness to Debbie (with, foremost, Belgian journalist Annik Honore, played by Alexandra Maria Lara). In 1980, Curtis, just 23, hangs himself.
Corbijn, a veteran rock photographer, has made a visually splendid film. Presented in high-contrast black and white, it recalls 1960s Brit-grit cinema with its ability to make nowhere working-class towns appear simultaneously hopeless and majestic. An image of Curtis walking to his civil-servant day job in a jacket punkishly bearing the word “hate” is indelible.
Corbijn also gets the tone of the band right, with the actors performing the music, no less.
Problem is, it’s more arty than penetrating. A biopic of this sort needs to deliver some serious essence in terms of who the protagonist truly is and why this person matters, and, in so doing, it should move you with the tragedy inherent in the downfall. Instead, Corbin provides mere facets of a messed-up life. They’re intriguing but unfulfilling.
Among the cast, Riley, a relative newcomer, doesn’t get beneath Curtis’ tormented surfaces, but, in sync with Corbijn, he brings Curtis charismatically to life as a gloomily iconic presence. He also aces Curtis’ vocals and moves. Morton, both because she’s extraordinary and because her real-life character wrote the memoir on which Matt Greenhalgh’s script is based, provides the drama with its only dose of resonant pain.
Starring Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara
Written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on a memoir by Deborah Curtis
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes