Thursday, June 5, 2008

Unknown Pleasures

Fans of the post-punk band Joy Division have two reason to be joyful this June--on the 3rd, the Cannes winning film Control directed by Anton Corbijn was released on DVD and on the 17th, Grant Gee's documentary of the groundbreaking band follows. Both films are filled with the band's music which, with singer/lyricist Ian Curtis' unique baritone vocalizations, reminds me of a New Wave version of The Doors. The documentary uses archival performance footage of the band and excerpts from their recordings as the soundtrack, while the Joy Division tracks in Control are performed (quite authentically) by the film's actors. The band took their name from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the novel House of Dolls.

Control, which I saw in the theater last fall, is a semi-fictionalized telling of Ian Curtis' life and tragic death based on his wife Debbie's biography Touching from a Distance. Corbijn, who first heard the band in 1979 and was almost instantly obsessed, is the perfect director for the piece. He is a rock photographer who took iconic images of the band and directed the posthumous video for their song Atmosphere in 1988. That video, featuring still photos of the band and the deceased Curtis, along Bergman-esque imagery, was completely in black and white--as was the film Control. Corbijn's use of black and white gives the film a retro stylistic look--bleak and stark and melancholy just like the music of the band. Not so ironically, Corbijn insists his next film will be in color...

The Control DVD features:

· Audio commentary with director Anton Corbijn
· The Making Of Control
· Out of Control: A Conversation with Anton Corbijn
· Extended Live Concert Performances
· Transmission music video by Joy Division
· Atmosphere music video by Joy Division
· Shadowplay music video by The Killers
· Still gallery
· Theatrical Trailers

While Corbijn's film focuses mainly on the enigmatic and ultimately tragic Ian Curtis, Grant Gee's documentary Joy Division is a more traditional chronological account of the band--their inspiration to form as punk band Warsaw after seeing a Sex Pistols performance, their metamorphosis into Joy Division, almost reaching the point of super stardom with a scheduled tour of America, Ian Curtis' suicide the day they were to depart on that tour and finally, rising from the ashes to re-form as the band New Order. Mixing archival footage with interviews and atmospheric shots of Manchester, Gee seems to postulate that Manchester was the inspiration for the formation of Joy Division and in turn Joy Division helped inspire the reformation and revitalization of Manchester.

While Control features a Ian Curtis-centric view of the band, he is (of course) a missing piece of the puzzle in Gee's documentary--his image only appearing in performance footage and his words only captured by his lyrics. The documentary features interviews with the surviving members of the band--Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris; Terry Mason, the band's first manager and subsequently its devoted roadie; Tony Wilson, the legendary (see 24 Hour Party People) Factory founder; and Annik Honore, Curtis' lover. Perhaps Honore's inclusion is the reason that Debbie Curtis doesn't make an appearance in the film--although excerpts from her biography of her husband Ian are quoted throughout. Also missing is manager Rob Gretton, who died in 1999, but whose frantic and detailed financial scribblings in numerous notebooks are included.

Although the film cites the initial musical influences--as well as the socio-political climate of Manchester in the late 70s, the film largely ignores the other bands or cultural scene of that era. Without that context, Joy Division seems to exist in a vacuum--and perhaps that was a conscious choice on Gee's part to highlight their uniqueness and how they were an influence on, more than influenced by, others. The DVD extras are limited to 75 minutes of interview material which did not make the final cut as well as the BBC performance of their song Transmission - which is also included as an extra on the Control DVD.

Both DVDs are being distributed as part of The Weinstein Company's Miriam Collection in association with Genius Products and both are required viewing for fans of and/or Joy DivisionNew Order.

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