"Joy Division" on Screen

Dennis Harvey January 15, 2008

Last year was a big one for Joy Division — a band that officially died in May 1980, when tortured frontman Ian Curtis famously took his own life on the eve of their first U.S. tour. Nearly three decades later, Joy Division’s small body of recorded works were all reissued in remastered form; new outfits like Interpol slavishly demonstrated the long arm of their influence; and two 2007 movies chronicled the quartet’s brief lifespan. Anton Corbijn’s “Control” was a dramatization of the book written by Curtis’ widow, Deborah, chronicling their romance and marriage, his eventual infidelity, as well as his mental health issues (much exacerbated by the late onset of epileptic seizures).

Pictorially bleak-beautiful (Corbijn is a highly regarded photographer), “Control” — which enjoyed a fairly long run in the Bay Area this fall — garnered quite a bit of praise on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, a minority found it a slug-paced, insight-free bore — and you can count me in on that judgment. The other movie, Grant Gee’s documentary simply titled “Joy Division,” is, for my money tar superior analysis of the band’s, and Curtis’, legacy.

It is playing the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room this weekend — and hie thee there, because this gorgeously B&W-shot (like “Control”) work should ideally be seen on the big screen. Will The Weinstein Company release it to theaters here, or will they just sit on it as the Weinsteins used to with so many festival acquisitions when they ran Miramax? Who knows — but let’s just say, if I were you, I’d be hustling down to YBC right now.

Ten years ago, Gee directed “Meeting People Is Easy,” which wasn’t quite like any prior rock-doc: Rather than joy or tragedy or decadence it primarily conveyed (again in striking B&W) the numbing exhaustion of fame, as it followed Radiohead on the endless tour of stadiums and interviews triggered by the breakout album “OK Computer.” Arguably that band is STILL trying to roll back the clock prior to that success, most recently offering their new “In Rainbows” for free download. They hated being “stars.”

So did Ian Curtis, apparently, though his bandmates were comparatively enthused about Joy Division’s surprise commercial rise, especially once “Love Will Tear Us Apart” became a hit single. One of the most revealing aspects of the documentary is how these surviving musicians (who regrouped and found their own mega-success as New Order) remain such reg’lar blokes you can understand how they utterly failed to grasp Curtis’ mental instability. If he seemed withdrawn, they just figured it was cuz he couldn’t decide whether to stay with his wife or his Belgian girlfriend Annik Honore. The occasional seizure aside, he otherwise seemed as-usual to them. They never even thought to interpret the despairing lyrics on final studio album “Closer” as reflecting anything beyond Ian’s “art.”

Unlike “Control,” the documentary vividly conveys a sense of the band’s collaborative nature (in Corbijn’s drama, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris are ill-defined support characters), the details of its career path, and the late 1970s environ of depressed industrial Manchester that so shaped their creative sensibility.

Strangely enough, “Joy Division” itself isn’t ultimately depressing — it celebrates a watershed musical moment rather than dwelling on an enigmatic personality’s tragic loss. Joy Division’s legacy will live on, but no one needs to make another movie about them — the definitive one is already here.