After decades of acclaimed rock-and-roll photography and music videos, it's not surprising that Anton Corbjin's first feature film is about a musician; what is surprising is how well-crafted, sympathetic and good Control ultimately is. Telling the life story of Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), the lead singer of Joy Division, Control hits all the notes that come as part and parcel of the musician's biographical film -- the dream, the rise, the fall -- but it also manages to find beauty and sadness in a story where we know the sad finale.
Control begins in 1973, as the young Ian Curtis lives among the council flats of Macclesfield, England -- listening to David Bowie, scrounging the occasional pill to pop, practicing applying eyeliner while wearing his sister's fun fur jacket. Something's out there -- a sense that pop culture has a place for the placeless -- and Curtis wants in. After a now-legendary Manchester Sex Pistols gig (where, as shown in the similarly-set but far breezier 24 Hour Party People, everyone in the small crowd apparently went out and started a band afterwards), Curtis runs into a group of three friends struggling to start a band -- "We'd be a lot less shite if we could find a singer who could actually sing." Curtis can't play a note on a guitar, but he's got the soul of a poet and -- just as importantly - the cheekbones of a fashion advert model, and soon Joy Division are playing local gigs that springboard them to international attention. Intertwined with the band's story is Curtis's marriage to Deborah (Samantha Morton) -- a sweet, gentle young girl who supports her young husband's successes with the band and his challenges as he's diagnosed with epilepsy. When Curtis gets medical advice about how to best handle his condition - "You should be getting plenty of early nights, and steering away from alcohol. ..." -- the disconnect between should and want is almost funny.
Corbjin's composed Control in black and white -- a palate he's used in many of his videos and still photographs -- and the visual sense of the film doesn't just fix it in a bygone past, but makes for a nice comparison to Joy Division's music: An initial sense of starkness is what first catches you, but as you pay attention, more complex shades are revealed. The hustle and bustle of the punk (and post-punk) era are well-portrayed, especially thanks to Tony Kebbell's portrayal of Joy Division manager Rob Gretton -- a swaggering, bold can-do charmer who might nbt be able to sing or play but wants in on the action. Kebbell's magnetic, and provides some much-needed comic relief: As Curtis is overwhelmed by his affair with Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) the needs of the crowd and his medical problems, Gretton's chin-up speech is a curdled thing of wonder. "Chin up. Could be worse. Could be the lead singer in The Fall."
Matt Greenhalgh's script is adapted from Deborah Curtis's book about her husband's life and death, and while it's normally a good idea to be somewhat suspect of any bio-pic based on the memories of the loved ones of the dearly departed subject, Control doesn't feel overly sanitized or manicured. Riley's performance as Curtis doesn't hurt, either; Riley can portray the charm of the frontman reaching out to the audience, but he can also capture the way depression curls in on itself until it begins to cut the possessor. When Curtis suggests that his young daughter -- who is, at best, four years old at the time -- will hate him, Deborah's incredulous: "How can Natalie hate you?" Riley's next line is spoken with the dammed conviction of the true depressive: "She will, though; she will."
Corbjin's film is well-made enough in enough places so that you feel like it isn't a fluke -- some lucky combination of actors and subject that anyone could make a film from. Corbjin can find a way to convey individual character in the crush and push of a concert crowd scene, and he films' visual sense is as well-modulated as it is well-made; there's nothing here that strikes you with a showy sense of excellence, but the scenes look and feel like part of an organic, carefully contemplated whole. Control is also graciously short on melodrama -- there's no sense of Byronic blow-ups or long scenes of agonized depression -- just the struggles of life, and a few bad decisions with serious ramifications: get married young, have an affair, blow out the gig, hang yourself at age 23. I joke that any rock and roll film can be judged solely on how fiercely it makes you want to go to the record shop immediately afterwards, but Control doesn't just capture the music of Joy Division; it brings Ian Curtis off the posters, out of the speakers, and in doing so rescues a man from his own myth.