The rock-star meltdown is a familiar enough concept in our contemporary mythology: heroin, alcohol, cocaine, self-destruction, suicide.
Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis had his own crack-up, undone by love, epilepsy and a career out of his control. In 1980, at the age of 23, Curtis killed himself and, with the new film Control, has entered the film lexicon of rocker noir: The Doors, Kurt & Courtney, Sid and Nancy, and Dig!, among others. Drawn from the book Touching from a Distance by his widow, Deborah Curtis, video director and still photographer Anton Corbijn's biopic is a visually narcotic ode to a man but also a time and place defined by Joy Division's music and the kitchen-sink pathos of 1970s Manchester.
Utterly seductive as the morose, doom-dogged vocalist, Sam Riley is enveloped in a black-and-white cinematography that does for him what Josef von Sternberg did for Marlene Dietrich. (Corbijn once photographed the real-life Curtis.) His jet-black coal hair is perfectly set off by an expanse of milky flesh. The ministrations of Corbijn's high-contrast photography also evoke early Jim Jarmusch and the British working-class dramas of the 1960s, and often make Riley look like the love child of graphite and strobe light.
Control certainly will speak to Joy Division fans, those who mark their coming-of-age to the maudlin strains of British mope-rock, Manchesterites and the suicidal. For others, some of the energy surely will dissipate as the inevitable sets in and a certain emotional obliqueness mounts.
Riley is utterly convincing as a tangled, tormented man with the kind of sensitivity that often fares poorly in the world. On stage, Riley delivers a herky-jerky performance style with the feverish, possessed quality of one of Curtis' epileptic fits. Samantha Morton is equally woebegone and mumsy-tragic as his neglected wife Deborah, chained to the home front with a small child and certain misery as a small-town barmaid.
Too decent a guy to quit his wife and child, despite having had both too young, Curtis is a man torn apart by indecision. Even the ecstasy of finding true love in Belgian journalist/secretary Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) is torture, a pain channeled into the band's most famous song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," released a month after his death, and which Deborah had inscribed on Ian's headstone.
Like the photographers Danny Lyon and Larry Clark, who have nimbly captured the glum, self-destructive allure of outcasts, Corbijn's film moves between nihilism and romanticism. Corbijn's liquid blacks and phosphorescent whites are their own music, a worthy evocation of the lonely depths of Joy Division's music and reason enough to bask for a while in misery.