As we reach the third but not final 'half' of my reviews of Brighton's CineCity festival, perhaps it's time I learnt to use the word 'part'. Anyway, it allows us to look again at Joy Division via this previewed documentary...
JOY DIVISION, Grant Gee, 2007
“After a Tony Wilson film (24 Hour Party People) and an Ian ‘n’ Debbie film (Control), the idea someone might make a Joy Division movie about Joy Division now seems remoter than ever.”
…or so I argued here, back in October, reviewing Corbijn’s Control. Little did I know that elsewhere in Brighton Grant Gee was putting the finishing touches to this documentary on the band. (Actually I did know, I’d just forgotten but that doesn’t sound so neat.) It works not so much as a counterbalance to Control but a companion piece, like a right speaker to be set alongside a left one. Despite the fact Gee is yet to even see Control, by a series of almost uncanny co-incidences every character on the periphery of the film is put centre stage here and vice versa. (Curtis’ widow Debbie doesn’t appear, citing overload after her involvement with Control, but agreed to the use of extracts from her book.)
However, the generic name of this documentary is in some ways telling. Despite Jon Savage being enlisted as ‘writer’ (read ‘creative consultant’), this is not the opinionated essay that might lead you to believe. There’s some attempt to set the context, with references to Thatcherism, Manchester’s sewers collapsing etc. (Plus some best-ignored bookending hyperbole about the band marking Manchester’s transition from an industrial to a ‘post-industrial’ city.) But mostly, while the film is solid, well-researched and even entertaining, the tone is straightforward and literal - at times skirting the prosaic. The meat of the film comes from the band interviews where they (Hook in particular) happily concede they just lucked into what they were doing and never bothered thinking about it much. There are occasional overlaps, for example Sumner commenting how little “beauty” you saw growing up in Sixties Salford. But mostly you glean the context from the archive film, very similar to the trick played by Control but you expect a documentary to tell you stuff where a film can imply.
In fact, while record titles like An Ideal for Living suggest a plan or at least a considered aesthetic, the whole story seems so casual as to be hilariously lackadasical. Curtis was hired over the phone without an audition. While everyone has commented on how Saville’s sparse sleeve design matched the music, we learn here he only ever heard them after delivering his first load of artwork. (He tried to get out of hearing it at all, then was surprised to find himself liking it.) Of course like some twist on schadenfreude, hearing how hopelessly casually history can be put together does become a kick in itself – I certainly always enjoy such stories. But lackadaisical doesn’t mean lacking, the fact the band didn’t think about what they were doing doesn’t mean they weren’t doing it. The band just aren’t the best equipped people to tell their own story, that’s all.
Almost by default, emphasis falls onto what has clearly been bugging the other band members ever since – could they have done more to prevent Curtis’ suicide? They played a gig the night after his first attempt, picking him up from the hospital, something they clearly now feel incredulous over. This is actually more than confession porn. Indeed it does sound incredulous, from a gang of guys at such a remove from ruthless careerism. As Gee suggests during his Q&A, the most likely explanation is the truculent Northern male syndrome of the time – being able to express themselves through amplifiers didn’t mean they could express themselves through their own mouths.
It’s human, of course, to wonder what you could have done. But could they have changed events? We have in many ways moved between extremes – from a reticent, stiff-upper-lipped society to a touchy-feely psychobabbly one. But a group hug, alas, doesn’t necessarily cure all ills. And as many have commented, Curtis became an expert at masking his feelings. The band confess they never even listened to Curtis’ lyrics, let alone connected them to his mental state. But in her book Debbie recounts that she did confront Curtis over this, leading to “a one-way conversation”.
While Control got hazy over what triggered Curtis’ downward spiral, here Sumner claims the anti-epilepsy drugs he started taking gave him extreme mood swings. (Quite possibly exacerbated by the band’s career starting to rocket just when doctors were advising him to take life easy.) Sumner also mentions, despite Curtis’ deranged persona on stage, he never took drugs – it just appeared with the music. But perhaps this means the mood of Closer was inspired by drugs – merely prescription drugs obtained on the NHS.
The one figure who remains insufficiently acknowledged is producer Martin Hannett, who contribution to the band’s sound places him second only to Curtis in order of importance. Hannett sadly died back in ’91 so isn’t available for interview. However, Wilson does discuss his strange working habits plus we get a brief audio clip of an interview he gave to Jon Savage – has this ever been released? Similarly Sumner and Morris at least developed much of the band’s sound (ahead of Hannett’s involvement), but again this rarely reaches the surface. The band’s transition from a guitar to a synthesizer-based sound doesn’t seem to get mentioned at all.
Something more conceptual that’s absent from both here and Control is the band’s refusal to give interviews. (In fact in Control their agreement to give an interview to Annik Honoré, suggesting quite the opposite.) With punk so tied to fanzines, manifestos and general ranting this insistence on silence helped draw a line between punk and post punk. Of course this may well merely be down to them having nothing particular to say, but it would still be interesting to see how it arose.
One absence from the film I’m not convinced matters is Curtis’ notebooks. Gee didn’t gain access to these, but enthused over what light they might shed someday. Of course this is possible, but it carries the connotation we are encountering something encoded which requires locating the decoding book. What matters is what was released, and the recordings are there for anyone who wants to hear them.
As Gee said himself during the Q&A this is the story of Joy Division served straight but what we need now is something to examine and critique that story. Within those workmanlike parameters, his documentary is successful, a great story well told, and would probably serve as a better introduction to the band than Control. The camera gets pointed in all the right places, but too often it just points – it doesn’t enquire. Ultimately it strays close to being a Wikipedia article when we really wanted a poem…