When the Replacements were drunkenly stumbling toward indie-rock immortality in the mid-1980s, lead singer Paul Westerberg was still living and writing songs for his band's major-label debut in his parents' basement. Why aren't these revealing economic realities ever shown in movies about artists? Maybe most moviegoers can't stomach the sight of poverty; maybe they like their cult heroes to emerge from the head of Zeus fully formed, rich and famous. Director Anton Corbijn's new film Control, about the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, is a bracing success in part because it stares long and hard into what writer Michael Azerrad called "the yawning gap between critical acclaim and financial reward."
Like I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' graduate thesis in Bob Dylan semiotics, Control rejects many biopic conventions, although some of these, like the grinding psychic toil of life on tour and the emotional fallout from the hero's on-the-road philandering, now seem like an inevitable part of every rocker's life story. I'm Not There is about the theory of cultural stardom; Control is about the everyday reality of a cultural star, especially before the royalties start rolling in.
Sam Riley plays Curtis as an intelligent, working-class Bowie-phile whose drive to create art co-existed uneasily with his decision to marry young, settle down, and have kids with his wife Deborah (a fierce and vulnerable Samantha Morton, whose gigantic, expressive eyes burn through a paper-thin role). One early sequence succinctly captures Curtis' discrepant desires. The camera tracks Curtis' morning walk to a government office, where he works as an employment counselor for people with mental and physical disabilities. Halfway through his walk, the camera glides behind him to show the word "HATE" scrawled in white on the back of his black jacket.
Unlike many rock-star pictures, Control is not interested in showing the fun of emerging stardom. Although they worked hard, the members of Joy Division don't seem to share many moments of unambiguous creative joy. Their songs were notoriously "assembled," sometimes instrument by instrument, in the recording studio. And the music they made could hardly be called cheerful. Still, the band's following steadily increases, as Curtis' desultory affair with a Belgian woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) and his increasing bouts of adult-onset epilepsy further unmoor him. Riley bravely underplays Curtis' final days, suggesting that his suicide was somewhat motivated by the way the massive daily doses of prescription medication limited his ability to think clearly about the world around him.
Like many rock stars, Curtis was more in charge of his life when he was onstage, where he could simultaneously act out and escape his troubles. The recreations of Joy Division's live performances are tense, strange, riveting; like Curtis, Riley dances in a weird march that makes him seem part sleep-deprived jungle trooper and part music-activated android, as if he were endlessly fighting a battle between self-expression and rigid, assembly-line conformity.
Control's final shot of smoke blowing into the sky (while Joy Division's "Atmosphere" plays in the background) offers a hint of resolution to Curtis' struggles. It strikes notes of regret, melancholy, and hope that are as inexplicably affecting as the band's best music.
Opens Friday, December 21st