08 October, 2007

Word of Mouth: "Control"

Musical biography of Joy Division and their lead singer Ian Curtis who killed himself. (I don't think that's a spoiler)

The pre-publicity for Control led me to believe that Anton Corbijn also wrote it as the screenwriter was never mentioned. I now realise that Matt Greenhalgh's name appears so late in the end credits that all the critics had probably left before it came up. What the hell is that all about?

I don't expect British films to follow the US and have the screenwriter credit next to the director's (they have the WGA, we have the WGGB) but for it to appear after the actors and the producers is taking the piss.

Anyway, I was always suspicious of Joy Division because of their alleged Nazi sympathising and never truly got into them. This is addressed in the film where Tony Wilson calls them Nazis and, Barney denies it. You might recall Wilson defended them against the accusation in 24 Hour Party People, calling their provocation 'art'.

Barney's famous comment at a gig sympathising with Rudolf Hess (a hero in the Neo-Nazi movement at that time) also appears in the film - they couldn't very well leave it out - but it is without context and not discussed.

When Ian explains the origin of the band's name he talks vaguely about it being the name given to women that German soldiers had sex with, implying that they were prostitutes. The person he's explaining to doesn't care, and the audience is meant to take a cue from that and not care either. Joy Divisions consisted of Jewish sex slaves faced with the choice of being raped or being killed.

Lots of young white Brits flirted with or openly embraced fascism at that time and they usually moved on when they grew up. (Although what was left of Joy Division didn't move on until after they named their new band New Order, obviously.) Some tossers do make brilliant music and that paradox would have been worth exploring further instead of the oblique sanitised throwaway references. Did Ian's obsession with Nazis really not contribute to his state of mind?

The main problem with the film is highlighted early on. There is a nice scene where Ian talks to the other three who are looking for a singer and I cringed expecting Ian to immediately offer his services as it is such a cliché. It happens a little differently, playing on our expectations and generating a big laugh, But it makes you realise the actual band story must be more complicated and we're getting a simplified version to save time.

It's a difficult job trying to do the whole "band meet, play gigs, get signed, release records, get famous" thing while at the same time avoiding being like every other boring band biog. It's only the Rob Gretton manager character that provides some humour and energy. Nothing else really surprises or is very interesting until we get to the bizarre love triangle later in the movie.

My problem with biogs is that if in reality there was no drama and the characters were dull and unlikeable then you're stuck with them. You can't just change characters and change the plot.

Corbijn is famous for his monochrome photographs and snapped Joy Division that way back in the day and so he says the movie has to be monochrome too. Although, the press release says it reflects the gloom and doom of the time. I actually remember the period as being in colour. The monochrome does look good but then so would colour. I suppose that's a valid artistic choice, as is the dull photo-like static set-ups.

What is most impressive about the film is the music. Rather than miming the original music, the actors had to learn the songs and style of Joy Division and they did a really good job.

Control isn't a bad film and perhaps it's the over-hype that has left me disappointed but it's not a must-see unless you're a fan of the band.


Andy Conway said...

I'd agree with almost everything you've said here, Robin, but I think you give the whole nazi thing more credence than it's worth. JD were a band that used the iconography of nazism in an ironic way (a very bleak irony, admittedly), and I never saw anything really meaningful in it - pretty much the same as the Pistols and their swastikas. They were teenage iconoclasts playing with provocative symbols.

The film glosses over a lot of it (including Peter Hook taking on the skinheads single-handedly) because it seems to view everything peripherally and all story takes second place to the coffee table photography book visuals.

Robin Kelly said...

I concede I might have given it more credence, Andy. It might even be time for me to forgive Spandau Ballet for their name ;-)

The thing that occurs is that, depending on our own voice, we will look at any story and think of different things to focus on.

But the problem is what they focussed on glossed over interesting internal and external conflict to produce a, more or less, hagiography.

far away said...

well said Robin

...although I've yet to see it ;-)