Friday, November 5, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 4 : Taking Control

A documentary can have the power to interest you in a subject you don't normally care about. A documentary can pose questions you have never asked of something you do care about. That is where fable and report can mix to produce something that can fend for itself outside of the thing it nominally discusses. By fable I don't mean misrepresentation. I mean something between storytelling and celebration, an imaginitive presentation of the facts that can both address a subject and be created from it. Terry Zwigoff's film about Robert Crumb is a perfect example. Zwigoff was finding so much about Crumb's family, particularly his relationship with his brothers that Robert as a subject fell from the mountain peak of focus to join the rest of his world as just another of its walking wounded.  It's a masterpiece of filmmaking which has a dynamic life in the minds of its audience long after the credits roll. I for one was so haunted by brother Charles that when I finally saw a good repro of the childhood comics he'd done in the Crumb Family Album book I felt a swell of real relief years after seeing the film.

So, a few years ago when two films about one of my favourite bands came out within months of each other, why did I prefer the biopic to the docco?

Joy Division is a well presented piece, getting its facts straight and careful to feature the testimony of a lot of the primary players and even have a stab at making the setting for the history work (Manchester as a kind of dynamic hub even in its death throes). It's not dull by any means and even if it were I'd still give it the time, being so into the subject. And it's not just that I've heard pretty much all those anecdotes before in some shape or form. It was great to hear them again told by the participants in their idiom. So what gives?

Well first let me say why I shouldn't like Control, the dramatised account of the bulk of Deborah Curtis' book Touching From a Distance. It's a subjective account in the guise of a kitchen sink film. It features some awful clunking rock'n'roll movie moments. It lends itself to hagiography, regardless of how grim'n'real it claims to be. Finally, it is directed by someone who knew them and took some of the most iconic photos of the doom'n'gloom laden early 80s and they were all of that band. Anton Corbijn was also responsible for one of the goofiest pop videos in history (the posthumous Atmosphere) of a song by the band. Not only was Control made by a fanboy but one who'd never directed more than tv commercials and music videos.

But Control is good. Control is really good. Control so far outstrips the authentic account of Joy Division that the fable is in the end somehow truer than the words of the witnesses.

But let's deal with goofy first. Young Ian Curtis and a school chum scam their way into an old lady's council flat to raid the bathroom cabinet for prescription drugs. Cut to Ian reading the list of disorientating side effects. "I'm taking two," he says. Aw look, he thinks he's people. Worse! Ian takes Debbie to the legendary Sex Pistols gig in the Lesser Free Trade Hall. He meets some friends beforehand and asks them how their band is going. They sullenly tell him the singer isn't working out.  Pistols gig! Cut to Ian, exultant, pogo-ing up to the lads and yelling: "Still looking for a singer?!" Worst! The band are on track for fame and glory and Ian has spent the night up talking intently with the woman he'd leave his wife for. It's fragile dawn and, still awake, she says wistfully, "tell me about Macclesfield...." That set the entire full house of the Princess Theatre on a roar. The substitution of the words "where you come from" would have kept everyone's trap shut. "Oh, PJ, what's it like in Townsville..."

But things work for this film that shouldn't. The photographer's eye is always on and the screen is constantly stained and washed with his grim grey silver gelatin vision of the north of England. Some of the settings could be cut into Eraserhead without anyone noticing. Scenes outside of the rock'n'ragin world of the band achieve some real poignancy, especially when Curtis grows closer to being confronted by his epilepsy. And there you  have it. Not the centre of an issue film like Shine (which I like, btw) but the first knot in a story that will pull all of its characters towards such a profound sadness and darkness that it leads to a character's suicide. I didn't Ian Curtis' suicide, note, but a character's.Sam Riley is doing the same fine job of his character here as Ian Hart did in Backbeat and The Hours and Times. And the gravity of his character's brief walk through the world takes us to a moment that another film might well have failed: the discovery of the body by Deborah is done without onscreen sound. It is swamped by the huge and powerful track Atmosphere. And it WORKS! (Ok, Anton, I forgive you for the MTV version with the midget monks, now.)

The story of Ian Curtis is a heart rending one. The story of the band Joy Division is an intriguing one. When I think of what I think of when I hear the music I feel closer to the journey of the fable than the adminstrative minutiae of a musical unit. So I forgive Control for falling into the same naff cliches that every fictionalised account of rock music seems to suffer from (for the polar opposite see The Girl Can't Help It and bliss out). I forgive it because it taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that Joy Division weren't just a band that made a few records; the records were good. They are good. They are really really good.

No comments:

Post a Comment