Thursday, November 08, 2007

Control and how to lose it

If Mel Brooks wasn't so busy minting mucho bucks by turning his old movies into Broadway gold, he'd probably be the one turning his satirical sights on the recent onslaught of musical bio-pics instead of Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow (for the upcoming Walk Hard). As Apatow said in a recent interview, the same themes of obscurity to fame along with drug problems and infidelity, leading up to redemption is what you see again and again now in films like Ray and Walk the Line (both of which he liked and so did I). With a slew of others waiting to be released soon, this genre was ripe for ribbing.

What makes Control so different from these other films is that not only is there no happy ending but there's also a shortage of played-up drama. Filmed in black-and-white, telling the tale of late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, it's one of the most understated musical flicks you'll see. Of course, that suits the subject perfectly and credit for that goes not just to photographer turned director Anton Corbijn but also the widow of the film's subject, who also happened to be the co-writer.

Deborah Curtis' book Touching from A Distance serves as a basis of the movie and paints a picture of a troubled, talented, driven, confused young guy. We see the turmoil of I. Curtis (played by Sam Riley) and his battles with fame, epilepsy, love and fidelity and how he ultimately caves in, hanging himself just as the band is about to tour the States and make a bigger name for themselves. We also see how tortured the cuckolded D. Curtis (played by Samantha Morton) is as he shacks up with another woman and keeps gravitating back and forth between his wife and his other lover.

A story like this would be easy to make into an over-the-top soap opera but the reason that the film works so well is that it doesn't do that at all. If anything, the film owes a lot to Ingmar Bergman, an expert at showing inner turmoil in the most subtle ways. When I. Curtis' lover complains that she barely knows anything about him, even after being with him for a while, we realize that neither do we. We only get little hints and snatches of inspiration (from Wordsworth to Bowie) to see who he is. That in itself is also a bit of myth-making (showing him to be the brooding, pained genius) but in my book, that beats pumped-up dramatics any time. After Curtis kills himself, we only see his wife's horrified reaction when she runs out of the house and his bandmates briefly sulking at a pub, followed by an endnote that he died on May 18, 1980 and that he was all of 23 years old at the time.

Of course, such early deaths are the stuff of music legend, alongside Mozart, Robert Johnson, Bird, Elvis, Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, Biggie and Tupac. Though producer/TV personalities/label head Tony Wilson (a co-producer of Control) also got his own bio-pic (24 Hour Party People), don't expect films exclusively focused on other members of Joy Division (now New Order). With the arguable exception of the irascible Peter Hook, they've led too low-key lives to warrant celluloid immortality. And just as a flamboyant talent like Jackson Pollock lends itself to a biopic, other great abstract expressionists like Barnett Newman and William de Koonig don't. Even Mark Rothko, who led a rich, varied life, full of twists and turns, doesn't get such treatment. That doesn't necessarily detract from Corbijn's fine work with Control but it does make you wonder what lives are deemed worthy of film and which aren't.


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