Biopic Recalls Joy Division Singer

October 5, 2007 at 5:54 pm Leave a comment

It was a handshake deal. Twenty-eight years later, it’s led to “Control,” the feature film about the life and suicide of Ian Curtis, frontman for the legendary Joy Division. It was 1979 at a London tube station where the band’s members and photographer Anton Corbijn shook after letting the then 24-year-old Corbijn do a 10-minute photo shoot and it became one of the most famous rock ‘n’ roll shots of that era.

By May 1980, Curtis was dead at 23. But by then, with just two full-length albums, Joy Division had changed music with their post-punk melding of dark, personal lyrics backed by a rigid, cavernous sound.

Corbijn went on to become a renowned photographer, creating indelible images of U2, Depeche Mode and R.E.M. He’s also directed videos for those bands and others, including Nirvana.

On a 2005 DVD compiling Corbijn’s music videos, Joy Division (and New Order) bassist Peter Hook said, only half-joking: “We made him what he is, you know? He’d be nothing without us.”

The 52-year-old Corbijn told The Associated Press that he decided to make his feature directing debut because of “an emotional attachment to the whole story from my end, and I thought that would sort of compensate for any lack of knowledge about filmmaking.”

“At the same time, I wanted to finish off an era of my life where everything I do is still driven by influences from my teenage years,” he added. “So maybe it will cap all of that.”

Corbijn’s film is an unconventional biopic that focuses on Curtis’ early marriage and harrowing bouts of epilepsy. Curtis’ seizures (including one on stage) are presented as a major reason for his suicide, particularly considering the side effects of his medication, often mixed with alcohol.

“Control” has played to acclaim at various film festivals, including at Cannes, where the director received three honors.

Corbijn was adamant that “Control,” which comes out in limited release Wednesday, not be a “rock film.”

“It’s really a film about a boy who had a dream and tried to fulfill his dream and then ended up somewhere where he was unhappy,” said Corbijn. “It’s a love story, and it has some great music. That’s how I look at it, in that order.”

Written by Matt Greenhalgh, the movie is based on the book “Touching From a Distance” by Curtis’ wife, Deborah Curtis (played by Samantha Morton). The two married in 1975 and had a baby four years later. (Curtis, though, eventually began an affair with a woman named Annik Honore, who is also portrayed in the film.)

“Although I’d never met Anton before, that he was known to the band and had lived in (the) U.K. for so long seemed a huge advantage, less like having a stranger come in,” Curtis told the AP.

The role of Curtis eventually went to Sam Riley, who was found by an open casting call. Riley, himself a front man for the band 10,000 Things, previously only had a brief role in “24 Hour Party People” a coincidence since that 2002 film chronicled Factory Records and the Manchester music scene of Joy Division and other bands.

Speaking by phone from London where he’s shooting his next film, Riley said: “I couldn’t believe he had given me the opportunity. He couldn’t believe, from what he’s told me, that he managed to find what he was looking for: an unknown who was capable of singing and smoking a lot of cigarettes.”

Riley studied the little available footage of Curtis with a particular eye to mimicking his distinctive, arm-swinging dance. Since it was one of the few things people immediately recognize about Curtis, it was key to creating authenticity.

“I was also nervous about these types of films, being a musician and having watched a lot of these things,” said Riley. “They’re difficult to get right without being corny.”

Corbijn credits the actor for making the movie “better than I had hoped for.”

Shot in black and white, “Control” mostly has music that’s performed on-screen and for those scenes, Riley and a band played the music themselves, live for the camera.

“When I heard the music coming from the drums and the bass and the guitar behind me, from the real band, it just clicked,” said Riley. “We felt like `channeling’ somebody sounds so pompous, but I was no longer thinking about it.”

Corbijn initially was reluctant to make “Control,” wary of again being pigeonholed (as he has in his photography) as connected only to music. He also expected it to be his only film, but the experience has made him eager to make more films.

Though “Control” closes a chapter of his life, it has opened a new one as a filmmaker.

“You come out of it and you have something,” he said. “That was one of the greatest things in my life.”



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