Of course there is a huge difference between the earnest, artistic indie biopic (e.g. “24 Hour Party People”) and the one-dimensional, star-studded, bordering-on-absurd spectacle of the Hollywood biopic (e.g. “Ray” and “Walk the Line”). Perhaps it's because Hollywood sees musicians as cartoony cautionary tales whilst indies attempt to humanize their subjects. Or maybe it's simply because the British actually know how to make a biopic.
Regardless of the reasons, Control is a remarkable film. The life and death of Joy Division front man, Ian Curtis, is based on the biography “Touching from a Distance”, which was written by his widow. The stunning black and white photography is perhaps a nod to the most iconic shots of the man. The photographic resume of director Anton Corbijn, who is actually responsible for taking many of those iconic shots, makes him the perfect man for the job.
The casting is also spot on. Because there aren't many videos of the real Ian Curtis, and because actor Sam Riley is a relative unknown, there are many moments in the film which feel like a documentary. Riley's angst-filled cigarette smoking and collar-up street walking are like a poster come to life. It will be difficult for me to watch him in any other role.
Samantha Morton is also incredible as Curtis' devoted cuckquean housewife. Despite her being the only recognizable actor in the film, it's impossible not to get drawn into her character. Ditto for Alexandra Maria Lara as Curtis' Belgian journalist mistress. Her big sad eyes prevent you from hating her for her part in the affair. Your heart positively aches for everyone involved in the love triangle that played no small role in Curtis' suicide.
This is an important film because it shows that not every depressed musician who offed himself was a selfish, drug-addicted asshole. Some of them had legitimate reasons for their melancholy. Ian Curtis was a sensitive kid who's formative years were spent in a working class town in the 70's, way before Hot Topic and MTV made being sad cool. He married and became a father before he was emotionally mature enough to do so. He is correct when he admits he's not a good father. But him admitting it indicates that he could have become one.
And then there were those pesky epileptic fits for which there was no cure, only hordes of medications with crippling side effects. Before he takes his own life, Curtis writes that the fits are worsening all the time. When he wakes up from a particularly violent episode on his last day, the pain is so bad that it brings him to tears. Not that suicide was necessarily the right choice. But in this case, it may not have been so far-fetched.
The film ends with heart wrenching shots of those closest to Curtis, processing the wherefores of losing their friend. Thanks to Anton Corbijn allowing his audience to get to know Ian Curtis intimately for 2 hours, we have some inkling of how they must have felt. The impact is staggering.
But I really did like “La Bamba”.
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