Sunday, April 06, 2008

There’s no doubt that a dead singer will do wonders for a band’s reputation. Just take Joy Division. Yes, they produced some excellent music, but quite a bit of it was incredibly mediocre. But because their lead singer killed himself they’ve obtained a glamour and an allure that they never would have possessed had they continued to make music under that banner.

And part of the reason why Joy Division are so well regarded is because people can claim Ian Curtis as an example of the tortured artist. He’s a man who suffered so much in life that death was the only answer. But that would be an incredibly shallow way of looking at things. Curtis was certainly a talented artist, but he wasn’t peerless. And for all of people’s romantic notions about Curtis, his suicide could have a rather simple explanation – maybe he had a negative reaction to the medication he took for his epilepsy.

And I think that would make his story more tragic. To have someone’s life and career wasted because of something as banal as a chronic condition or a combination of pills is a lot sadder than someone taking their life because they were selfish and self-absorbed. Because that’s what Curtis is. He’s a man who marries his childhood sweetheart, who fronts a successful band that is going places and who later has an affair with an attractive Belgian artist. If he wanted to grab it, he could have everything. But instead he wallows in self-pity. He feels like his band is getting too big. He loves his wife but she stifles him. And he loves his girlfriend but she’s too adoring. Therefore it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for this man. But despite his cruelty, there’s still a part of you that feels for him. Life is never as simple as ‘you should be happy with what you’ve got’ and people’s feelings are often beyond their control. And with Curtis this is made worse when he has to suffer from seizures and the side-effects of his medication. He’s a bastard, but deep down you feel there’s a decent guy struggling to get out.

The end of the film suggests that it was Curtis’ epilepsy that pushed him over the edge. We see him have a seizure and then he wakes up and kills himself, apparently unable to deal with his condition. But of course we’ll never know exactly what happened that day. And we also never really know what Curtis is thinking. But this isn’t really a fault of the film. It’s mainly to do with the man. For all his songs and all his writing, you get the feeling that nobody is ever really able to penetrate the surface.

But although you can’t fault the film for not providing more answers, it can certainly be faulted for being too timid. The film doesn’t tell us that Curtis briefly flirted with fascism, that he took his first overdose at 15, that he dictated to his wife what she could and couldn’t wear and that he threw wine over her when she danced with another man at their engagement party. It’s a watered down version of Ian Curtis.

The film can also be faulted for never really capturing the excitement of the band’s performances. The film is beautifully shot, but the musical sequences never really take flight. And this can’t be attributed to the actors, who do a great job. Instead it’s a fault of the direction. It’s too static.

But while the filming style doesn’t benefit the musical sequences, it works for the rest of the film. It makes you feel like you’re looking at images in a magazine. You’re part of this world and part of this story, but you’re removed from it too. It’s real but it’s unreal as well. After all, Macclesfield only looks this beautiful on film. And that’s the way we want it. We don’t really want reality to conflict with the images in our head – we want some part of the myth to remain; that our heroes come from a different world, a world we can see but that we can’t really touch.

My favourite image in the film is the one at the end. We see smoke rising out of a chimney in a graveyard – Curtis is being cremated. He’s being liberated from the life he felt he couldn’t deal with. And although it maybe romanticises his death too much, it finally provides a level of emotion that was lacking elsewhere in the film (it’s filmed to ‘Atmosphere’, for my money the band’s best song). The man who existed in real life wasn’t a particularly nice person, a man who sometimes treated his wife abysmally, but he was also a man occasionally capable of scaling heights of creativity. And it’s that talent that you end up mourning more than the man.

However, although the subject matter would suggest that the film makes for grim viewing, it’s also quite funny in places. In particular I like the scene where the Crispy Ambulance frontman has to replace Curtis and face the wrath of the crowd. And that reminds me of how much I like the band’s manager, Rob Gretton. When he introduces himself to the band he plays it big. But then in the next scene we see him in his underwear, answering a payphone by saying, ‘Rob’s Records’. It’s a nice way of showing how ramshackle the whole scene was. And of course you have Tony Wilson signing his contract with Joy Division in blood. But although all of this is great, it did remind me of how much better 24 Hour Party People is. Yes they’re different stories, but Winterbottom’s film, even in the brief amount of time Curtis gets in that movie, manages to scale higher levels of emotion and invention. I just think Control, as good as it is, is a little too conservative, something Curtis wasn’t...even if he briefly was a Tory voter.

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