Film, Music, and Photography: Revisiting Control (2007)

Becker Films ©

“It’s all happening boys.”

Most people’s familiarity with post-punk band Joy Division comes from the album cover for Unknown Pleasures (1979) that has been widely used, to put it mildly, by clothing brands like Primark, Topman, and other high street outlets. Many people wearing a Joy Division tee or sporting a tote may not even be familiar with the band. Joy Division have become iconic for their eerie yet energetic music and because, tragically, their lead singer Ian Curtis killed himself at the tender age of 23.

Anton Corbijn is not primarily known for his movies, but for his black and white photographs of celebrities, largely music industry icons. With his rugged pictures, he shaped the landscape of portrait photography. I would go so far as to say that I’ve never seen a picture taken by him that wasn’t ‘cool as f*ck’; he has a way of framing his subjects that’s both breath-taking and honest. Indeed, German musician, Herbert Gronemeyer once said that when he first a picture of himself taken by Corbijn he thought that maybe one day he could become the person in the photo. That’s probably Corbijn’s secret: he can show people what might be possible.

Ian Curtis (1979) by Anton Corbijn

What then is this all about? A band and a photographer? In 2007, Corbijn made a biopic detailing much of the life of Curtis and Joy Division called Control.

Control is about the rise of Joy Division, with a focus on its mysterious lead man Ian Curtis. In haunting monochrome, Sam Riley plays the leading man as if he were born to. The movie introduces Curtis as a boyish, defiant figure; an avid fan of Bowie and the Sex Pistols, wearing makeup to annoy his parents, and wearing a black overcoat with ‘HATE’ written on it to his daytime job as a career advisor. In contrast to this, he marries at 19, a relationship that will later come to haunt him. Soon, the band is formed with success stories rolling in and legendary punk-figure Rob Gretton (Toby Kebell) becomes their manager. This suddenly goes downhill as Curtis’ declining health, a result of epileptic fits and mental health problems, ultimately results in him committing suicide. Worth mentioning is Toby Kebell’s performance as the band’s manager Rob Gretton. Kebell famously played Johnny Quid in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla (2008), and always does a wonderful job at portraying talkative characters. What that guy can achieve with a cigarette is quite impressive.

Much of Control’s beauty owes itself to the imagery. Corbijn’s choice to present mid-70s life for Mancunian youth in black and white highlights the discrepancy between their rock musician ambitions and the harsh socio-political climate they find themselves in, all cold with the stone façades of the buildings they live in. It’s simple, edgy, and melancholic.

Corbijn, so adept at framing life, makes his voice heard through images in the film. Stills from the film could be framed for an exhibition about loneliness. Control exists as Corbijn’s first feature length, and probably best, film. Corbijn has always been a music man, it’s no surprise that a film about music and one of the most important bands of the 20th century with whom he had actually worked, turned out to be his crowning jewel.

Control shows us the ramblings of a tortured soul. It’s dark, it’s beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s sad. The end credits are a little reflection of the whole narrative – a name in bright letters flickering briefly before disappearing.

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