Monday, 22 October 2007


Anton Corbijn’s recent biopic of Joy Division’s ill-starred singer Ian Curtis can be said to have many achievements, but perhaps a crucial one is its ability to set the scene so well. So let’s try and follow its example…

From its very beginnings, British punk felt it saw a defect in previous home-grown music. In seeking to emulate American rock and blues, earlier bands ended up duplicating something second hand. While American music arose, quite naturally, out of the American landscape, British groups would sing diligently about (say) the L-Train while oblivious to what the L-Train was or where it went. So in Britain punk retaliated by taking up a provincial anti-Americanism (one of the Clash’s main anthems was “I’m so bored with the USA”), by dropping the L-Train and instead singing defiantly of the Number Seven bus.

While it would be easy to ridicule all that in hindsight, we should remember some (such as Paul Weller) were able to do it well. But the problem with this fixation upon fag ends, chip wrappers and damp weather was that it became just that Рa fixation. American music had arisen naturally from its landscape, while this obsession with seedy Englishness soon became at best a clich̩ and at worst a put-on. Any dickhead, after all, can sing about stepping in used condoms in the hallway.

Joy Division, probably more by luck than judgement, hit upon a more winning combination. Curtis’ lyrics were (depending upon who you talk to) painfully introspective, universally existential or some combination of the two. (Typical line: “Seeing me this time/ Hoping for something else”.) It was in the music where the band conjured up cavernous yet claustrophobic soundscapes which, to quote K-Punk, “suggest the derelict factories and litter-strewn ex-public spaces of a decommissioned industrial economy.”(1) Bypassing the literalism of words, the music left you feeling you stood in a crumbling entropic Britain. It was a world away from the Clash’s rallying calls of onedownmanship.

And, perhaps more by luck than judgement, Corbijn uncannily duplicates this vital balance. While the frontstory recounts the details of Curtis’ life, something which in another context may have felt soapy, the sheer vivid look of the film makes it come alive. A shot as simple as rain on a phone box window becomes something simultaneously mundane and numinous. Rather than chase an elusive ‘authenticity’ the film achieves a kind of poetic realism. (2) (It should perhaps be noted that there had always been a strong visual dimension - the band’s look and sleeve design have been celebrated for synesthesiastically adding to their soundscape, and that Corbijn had been a photographer of the band.)

This is news to be received gratefully, for I had high hopes and bigger fears for this film. Biopics are normally something to avoid like the plague, and rock biopics are the worst of the very bad bunch. Made by those who understand more about lens apertures than music, they try to turn the amps to 11 and manufacture excess in the absurd belief that’s what rock music is about – or will at least drown out the complaining. This is bad enough at the best of times, but the most significant element of Joy Division’s music was its sense of restraint. Possibly more than even their post-punk contemporaries, they eschewed orgiastic solos for an austere discipline bordering on rigidity. Not to name names, but an Oliver Stone at the helm here would mean a Titanic on our hands. Even the film’s title, spinning off from the track She’s Lost Control, reflects this relationship between discipline and derangement.

We need Corbijn’s restraint for a separate, but possibly more important, reason. It’s scarcely a plot spoiler to reveal Curtis committed suicide, on the eve of the band’s first American tour. While the band’s star had been rising, it seems this terrible act propelled them into the big time. His death hit the headlines, made both a twisted selling point and an eerie sense of his melancholic lyrics, and one month later came their first hit single. Youth culture is of course obsessed with early death, but this story is so true to legend that interest can quickly become ghoulish. (I can remember seeing a bootleg t-shirt commemorating his death, and wondering even at the time whether a man’s life is best commemorated by a t-shirt.) Yet Corbijn avoids, for example, any gratuitous shots of Curtis as a gurneying corpse and instead portrays the moment of his death through his wife’s reaction.

Of course for all that we may ask whether we really want to know this sort of stuff. As Simon Reynolds has commented, underneath the grandeur of the songs the problems besetting Curtis were “mundanely specific.”(3) Isn’t it falling into the same ‘pop psychology’ hole as all TV documentaries seem to have of late?, with their banal and bathetic revelations that the Russian Revolution failed because Stalin’s dad didn’t hug him and the like. Curtis’ lover Annik Honore has commented: "The music should always be more important than people's private lives”.(4) Or as Bob Dylan memorably said “a poet tells you what you feel.” Shouldn’t our focus be on the music and our own reactions to it, and the tawdry details of those who made it be left to gutter journalists?(5)

Again, this question is a bigger deal for Joy Division than almost any other band. Even by the standard of bands, they went out of their way to create a mythos for themselves. If for a band a mythos is currency, they were shrewd enough to know you make a currency valuable through scarcity. As Emmy Henningshas said “part of Joy Division's allure lay in the fact that there was so little information outside of the sound and the record sleeves to go on. As a band they gave very few interviews, and the fact that nearly every photograph ever taken of them has become iconic is due partly to scarcity - images become icons through being both rare and precious.”(6) The band were like some ancient civilization where there were never quite enough artifacts unearthed to understand – some designs, bits of tablet in a script no-one’s sure how to read.

Curtis was found dead on May 18th 1980, precisely one day after my fourteenth birthday. At the time I held onto a huge yet half-formed belief in his death as something grand and existential, as if he had the courage to face something essential I could only glimpse secondhand through his songs. Too young to truly understand death, I figured it must be something cool.

Of course I was already seeing the world much differently by 1996, when his widow Deborah published her biography Touching From a Distance. Though I only read press excerpts, I was struck how far the husband she knew was from my image of a doomed Keatsian romantic. Instead he seemed a fairly typical Macclesfield male, leaving the wife to domestic drudgery while he went out and about, and (when she was permitted out in public) obsessive over her covering herself up. It’s Deborah’s book which has been adapted and extended into this film (she even served as co-producer), and in fact the very reason it should be made is because it dispels all the ‘die-young’ myths surrounding Curtis’ life. As Deborah has put it, "We're looking to give the world a truthful view of who Ian really was ... It will be a balanced approach - this isn't the rock and roll Shine."(7) Let’s do the punk thing. The punk thing is to kill your idols.

It’s unafraid to show Curtis as callous, as much torturing as tortured. One reader of Deborah’s book was even driven to title an Amazon review Rock Martyrs are Subhuman Too. (8) Yet he and everyone else is portrayed in quite a nuanced manner. Even the loudmouthed manager, Rob Gretton, is shown as torn over his response to Curtis’ unraveling life, concerned over his fraying health yet eager for him to keep performing, ultimately out of his depth. The film’s also unafraid to introduce farce elements into this otherwise bleak story. In a nicely telling moment we follow Curtis into the Labour Exchange with ‘Hate’ scrawled punkishly over his jacket, only to find out he’s actually working there as an advisor. These scenes are both funnier and more effective than the earlier, somewhat histrionic 24 Hour Party People precisely because they’re played so deadpan.(9)

The lynchpin of both book and film is the emotional triangle between Curtis, Deborah and first the band – then Annik Honore, the Belgian fanzine writer who became his mistress. In a sense, there are two Curtis’ in the film and they occur in reverse order to the one you’d expect. While still a schoolboy he carries himself like a self-confident star, only to become sullen and introspective when the front man in a successful rock band. Though we spy Burroughs and Ballard on his teenage bookshelf, the music he loves is not glum but glam – the Dionysian dressing-up of Bowie and Bolan. When Debbie first meets him, he’s in a combination of mascara and school blazer. As if unused to aesthetes in Seventies Macclesfield, Debbie is soon smitten by him - complaining he’s “a bit presumptuous” then letting him kiss her three seconds later. “You’re mine and you know you are,” he tells her by way of a marriage proposal. It’s like she was his first groupie, arriving even before his first gig. His subsequent disdain for Debbie can best be summed up by Blake’s proverb “the bounded is loathed by its possessor.”(10)

In a key early scene he recites a poem to impress Debbie. Yet when asked if he wrote it he shakes his head and replies “Wordsworth”. For all his acting the part of the star, as yet he has nothing to say. (Perhaps in an alternate universe he stayed like this and Oasis were formed fifteen years early.) While meeting the rest of the band at a Pistols gig gives him the opportunity, it’s the loveless bind of marriage to Debbie which gives him the motive to write. He earnestly scribbles lyrics in an exercise book as an alternative to talking to her, as she timidly taps at the door inviting him to bed. Henningsremarks how Debbie is “patronised as a terribly embarrassing reminder of the humdrum domesticity that rock music sets itself up time and time over to escape.” When a pregnant Debbie finds him backstage getting cosy with a hanger-on, he defiantly shoots back “should you be out in your condition?”

So instead of being at the football or with the pub darts team, Curtis was fronting a cutting-edge band which redefined music? Yes – and no. Factory Record’s Tony Wilson famously said he signed Joy Division because they were the only band he saw who had to be on stage – and he perhaps meant Curtis more than the others. The band was more to him than an excuse to get away from the wife and crying child. In fact, for a while seems to have served as his lifeline, the place where he could sing what he was unable to say. But as time goes on, the lifeline came to feel more and more like a noose.

Though never laboured, the film is normally clear. Only over this transformation does it become slightly elusive, and my comments here consequently more interpretive. In the early days, Curtis is the arrogant and ambitious one of the group. His tactic to get Wilson to sign them is march up and call him a “bastard” for not having done enough for them already. But as success builds the band becomes more of a bind, his input an expectation… all too much like the “opportunities” he’d find the hapless doleys back at the Labour Exchange. At one gig he finds himself unable to sing. When Rob Gretton’s solution (getting someone else up who happens to know the words) is less than successful (it results in a riot), he confesses his fears to Wilson.(11)

Curtis tells Annik his marriage was a “mistake” taken “too young”. While this feels more than a chat-up line, we might reasonably ask in that case why he doesn’t just leave Debbie for Annik? The film flirts with the idea that Annik is the one person he can express himself to. The above comment is made as they stay up all night talking, while the rest of the band crash out. But in a later scene Annik makes a prying attempt to open him up, with Curtis replying disarmingly his favourite colour is “Man City Blue”.(12) And, if his songs are to be taken as the voice of his heart, they seem far more concerned with lost love for Debbie than found love for Annik.(13)

When Debbie insists she must divorce him over Annik, Curtis asks “what’s that got to do with us?” The line got a laugh at the showing I attended, and while it is a classic piece of chutzpah its also possible he really meant it. As Beatrix Campbell and others have argued, there’s a common male desire to avoid maturity by making your wife your second mother – a desire compounded by the social breakdowns which were underway at this time.(14) The night before his suicide Curtis visits first his actual mother, and then Debbie to ask her to drop her divorce claim. Curtis first drove a wedge that kept Debbie away from his creative life, then complained that all she stood for was domestic drudgery. Yet, infanatalised, he was unable to completely cut the apron strings and run off with Annik. This was not long after their daughter’s birth. Babies are often a crisis point in such a scenario, bringing out in the father something approaching sibling rivalry. But it seems it was Debbie’s threat of divorce which took him over the edge. Though accounts often emphasise his last acts as watching a Herzog movie and listening to an Iggy album he hung himself, with horrific appropriateness, by the most domestic of icons - the clothes dryer in their flat.
(The official site also has a cool trailer)

(2) If the film has a fault, it’s that at times it leans a little too heavily towards the poetic and breaks the vital equilibrium. Real events are rejigged, compressed or even distorted – for example the urban myth gets repeated that Tony Wilson signed the band with a contract written in his own blood. (A tale which only seems to have started with 24 Hour Party People , five short years ago). Such things matter little. But I doubt, for example, many Macclesfield pubs were playing the Velvet Underground in 1979, and these jarring moments can throw you out of the film’s spell.
(3) Rip It Up And Start Again – Post Punk 1978-1984, Faber and Faber, 2005, ISBN 0-571-21569-6
(5) The spotlight on Curtis’ troubled soul also makes for something of an auterist approach, with the rest of the band in very much secondary roles. We’re told band rehearsals are “pretty shite, actually” until he arrives and galvanizes them with his angst. But perhaps he needed them as much as they him. Producer Martin Hannett’s vital role seems particularly neglected. After a Tony Wilson film (24 Hour Party People) and an Ian ‘n’ Debbie film, the idea someone might make a Joy Division movie about Joy Division now seems remoter than ever. Notably, the band had agreed to dissolve if any member left, not just their front man. However, the last shot with (presumably) joinee Gillian Gilbert implies the others are ready to carry on reconstituted as New Order.

(8) =”
(9) Directed by Michael Winterbottom in 2002, and (while heavily featuring Joy Division) more the story of Factory Records.
(10) Assuming the film is faithful to Deborah’s book the character she seems least even-handed with is herself, time and again she’s portrayed as a doormat.
(11)Though the song doesn’t appear in the film, the psychological blood-and-circuses of Atrocity Exhibition would seem to contain Curtis’ most explicit doubts about the inherent exhibitionism of his career direction: “For entertainment they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, 'I still exist.'”
(12)It should be conceded the Annik scenes do suffer from the film being based on Deborah’s book. The film scrupulously avoids portraying her as some clichéd femme fatalle yet, even more than his
time with the band, his moments with her were conducted away from Debbie. There’s a consequent extemporising, as they attempt to cut her a character out of little cloth.
(13) Anyway, is this ‘explanation’ quite the rosebud it appears? While it may account for Atmosphere or Love Will Tear Us Apart, how does it explain away Decades or Dead Souls? Curtis’ depression came to be a dark prism through which he came to see the surrounding world, and this is precisely what makes the music so worth listening to. Art is no mere mirror to life, and reductive and schematic approaches to it need not apply.
(14) Strictly Campbell’s argument was confined to the unemployed, jobless Northern males unable to confirm their identity in the classical way, stuck in the women’s world of the home. Nevertheless, there is a parallel.

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