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Movie Review: Joy Division (2007)

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Grant Gee's documentary Joy Division, based on the legendary post-punk rockers of the same name, made the festival circuit last year at the same time as Anton Corbijn's dramatic account Control. While Control received most of the attention and received theatrical distribution, most assumed that Gee's film would be relegated to special feature treatment for the DVD release of Control. After all, it was surprising enough that one movie was made about the highly-influential, yet not-exactly-famous band, much less two.

Surprisingly, Gee's documentary got its own release on DVD through the Miriam Collection, released concurrently in North America with the Control DVD. After watching it, I'm pleased with this decision, as Gee's film deserves more attention than that of a special feature that even I might have taken my time to getting around to watching. I'm a big fan of Joy Division's music, and enjoyed Corbijn's film. But it did have a couple of flaws that Gee's film handles better, namely establishing the band's place in rock history and focusing on the whole band, rather than just the story of lead singer Ian Curtis.

While Corbjin's film is mostly based on the book Touching from a Distance by Curtis' widow Deborah, Gee's documentary heavily features surviving Joy Division members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris (who would continue making music following Ian Curtis' suicide as the band New Order), along with contributions from the legendary Tony Wilson, and Curtis' former mistress Annik Honoré. Deborah's book is referenced with passages used as onscreen transitions, but this movie isn't her story, it's Joy Division's. Which isn't to say one is better than the other, just different, with both films playing their part in fleshing out the story of the band.

I'd say Joy Division serves as the better introduction to the band for those unfamiliar, while Control plays better to those already invested in the band and the story of Ian Curtis. The interviews trace the band's ascent from humble Mancunians inspired by a Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall to form their own punk band, even if they didn't know how to play music, to rising stars on the Northern England scene, only to have their progress halted by Curtis' sudden suicide on the night before they were to depart on an American tour. Despite the pall that hangs over the band's legacy due to Curtis' death, the band still has some light stories to tell about their days as young rock stars, while not brushing aside the hard questions surrounding the despair in Ian's lyrics and how they can now be seen as a cry for help that they all missed.

Like the band's music, Joy Division the film is at times fascinating, electric, and haunting. Since the band never achieved a large amount of fame while active, having just started out in 1977 and finished with Curtis' death in 1980 before the release of their second album Closer, their story isn't your typical rock 'n 'roll star tale. The film handles their blue-collar roots and struggling nature without making them seem ordinary. The lads were still just starting out and struggling, but their output was truly special, so it's important for the film to be evocative without betraying the reality of their humble surroundings, and I think Gee succeeds in this. It helps that much of the film is backed by the band's original tracks, which is enough to get my blood pumping, be it over conversations about the political world of Manchester in the late '70s, or the techniques of legendary producer Martin Hannett in crafting Unknown Pleasures.

Some of these stories have circulated around a few times by now, be it in Deborah Curtis' book, or in Michael Winterbottom's excellent film about Tony Wilson 24 Hour Party People, but it's worth hearing them again, this time out of the horses' mouths. Much of the mystique of the band rightly surrounds Ian Curtis, as his otherworldly lyrics and presence are a big part of what made Joy Division work (and why I'm a big fan of Joy Division, but only a casual fan of New Order), but it's easy to forget that there were three other men responsible for their two landmark albums. So it's nice to hear their perspective, both on what was going in their lives at the time and their remembrances of Curtis.

Joy Division provides this opportunity, along with reminding everyone of the genius that burned bright, a genius that continues to inform modern rock music today. As with Control, Touching from a Distance, or the legacy of music left behind, Joy Division has no answers as to why that genius shone for too brief a period, but serves as an excellent example as to why the question still persists 28 years later.

Starring: Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, Annik Honoré, Ian Curtis [archival footage]

Directed by: Grant Gee

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