I cannot discern the difference between punk and post-punk. Nor am I passing myself off as an authority on rock. But I must confess that I was quite taken by “Control,” a movie about the post-punk group Joy Division. I liked the music and I appreciated the lyrics, which were not only literate but understandable.
I have nothing but praise for the performance of Sam Riley, who does a commendable job of playing Ian Curtis, the anguished lead singer of Joy Division, the Manchester-based group that attracted critical attention in 1976. In 1980, on the eve of a U.S tour, Curtis committed suicide.
“Control” begins by introducing us to Curtis before he answers an ad from a local group looking for a singer and lyricist. We see him with Deborah, his girlfriend, played wonderfully by Samantha Morton. “Let’s get married,” he suggests, and they marry. Later he says, “Let’s have a baby,” and they have a baby. By this time, the young father is on his way to becoming “quite famous.”
Actor pulls it off
After I saw the movie, I located video of Curtis’ performances, and I must say that Riley nails it — his approach to the mike; his stance, that of a classic ’40s crooner; and his impulsive gyrations that I found natural and captivating, even more so, considering the notion that the movements of too many rock and pop groups seem rehearsed. Artificial spontaneity is always annoying.
“Control” presents the music, but mostly it is an intelligent, absorbing account of a young man torn by guilt and afflicted with epilepsy. Though some members of the audience thought his seizures were part of the act, Curtis was deeply embarrassed and cried backstage. If the accounts of his life are accurate, he is also a young man who married before he had time to spread his wings.
Perhaps youth had nothing to do with the fact that even though he loved his wife, he also falls for Annik, a Belgian played by Alexandra Maria Lara. “I’m ashamed of the person I am,” croons Ian, who bemoans his “isolation.” The next moment, he breaks into a move of almost maniacal exuberance as he sings “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
As presented here, Ian Curtis is not, in the pejorative sense, a punk, but a sensitive artist who quotes from Wordsworth and reflects on lines from “Heart of Darkness” and scenes from “Apocalypse Now.” It is, he says, reflecting on the latter, “the struggle between man’s conscience and heart.”
He could be talking about himself.
The screenplay is adapted from “Touching From a Distance,” a memoir penned by Ian’s wife. “Control” is an original, energetic movie that captures the brooding intensity of a young man and his “dark, gloomy sound.” If you already know about Curtis and Joy Division, you will see it. If you have never heard of him but savor respectable music and a good movie, I ask you to give it a chance.
Reach Gazette film critic Dan DiNicola at [email protected]