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Revisit:

Joy Division

Dir: Grant Gee

2007

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In May of 1980, on the eve of their first American tour, 23-year old Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, after listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and watching Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (a film that ends with a suicide), hanged himself, ending the band while securing their immortality. Nearly 30 years later, Joy Division’s legacy is as secure as ever. Their albums (the studio ones and the posthumous collection Still) have been given the deluxe reissue treatment, their songs are frequently covered and their debut Unknown Pleasures is the subject of a 33 1/3 book. In 2007, there was both a feature film Control directed by Anton Corbijn, who had photographed them and did the video for “Atmosphere,” and a documentary. For the casual fan, these may seem redundant, as Joy Division were the de facto stars of the first half of 2002’s Manchester music scene film 24 Hour Party People. For the serious fan, there can never be too much said about them.

It’s very easy to get obsessed with Joy Division. They only made two proper studio albums, Unknown Pleasures (1979) and the frigid, funereal swansong Closer (1980), left some truly great non-album singles (two of their most recognizable songs: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Transmission”), had a tragically short career, and created a body of music that, 30 years later, is virtually like nothing else. It’s not that you can’t hear influences in their work, but they’re so thoroughly integrated that almost everything they did sounded – and still does sound – bracingly original.

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Unknown Pleasures is one of the most startlingly and accomplished debut albums in rock history. The band, paired with mad scientist producer Martin Hannett, sounded perfectly formed and in complete control of their talents. The music was both visceral and arty, like the Velvets and the Stooges. They harnessed the power of punk to something stranger and darker and they sounded light years ahead of most of their more conventional peers. Curtis brought in literary elements from such disturbing and iconoclastic authors as J.G. Ballard (“Atrocity Exhibition”) and William S. Burroughs (“Interzone”), sang with utter conviction, and the band generated music that could be, in turn, claustrophobic, bleak, thrilling, experimental, even danceable.

The simply titled, well-made documentary was directed by Grant Gee, who also did the Radiohead film Meeting People is Easy and written by music journalist Jon Savage, who wrote the seminal book on UK punk, England’s Dreaming. Joy Divison is both a celebration of the band, as well as a requiem. The filmmakers assembled virtually every important living figure associated with the band, including Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, who designed their album art work, Curtis’s Belgian girlfriend Annik Honore, contemporary Mancunians, musicians like Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle), and, of course, band mates Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Gilbert who would go on to form New Order.

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The only conspicuous absence is Curtis’s widow, Deborah, whose book about Curtis, Touching from a Distance (the source for Control) is nonetheless quoted. Unlike many documentaries, this is not hagiography and Curits’s flaws and his epileptic fits are not glossed over. Hook even calls him a “bastard” for killing himself. The film is both a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the band, including essential tidbits like their formation after a Sex Pistols gig and the source of the band’s name (the Nazi concentration camp novel House of Dolls), and a comprehensive overview for longtime fans.

What makes Joy Division unique is that if focuses on their home base of Manchester and one commentator calls the film “the story of a city.” Manchester in the late ’70s was a decaying, grey post-industrial town with an almost dystopian sci-fi feel. It spawned a remarkable music scene that also included one time tour mates Buzzcocks, the Fall, A Certain Ratio and Magazine. What this film does that Control did not do (perhaps because it was more focused on the relationship between Ian and Deborah) is emphasize that Joy Division were a band. Their impact did owe a great deal to Curtis’s dark, charismatic presence, but each member was an indispensable component who brought something highly distinctive to his instrument. Curtis will always be the tortured rock and roll martyr, haunted by the horrors of the 20th century, but the others are the survivors who have to live under the shadow of his death.

As with many music docs, what’s most enjoyable is the live and archival footage. Contrary to their reputation as cerebral, brooding and arty, Joy Division were a formidable, galvanizing live band, whose sound in concert was louder and more aggressive than it was on record. They moved quickly through punk (few bands have evolved at such an alarming rate), but kept some of its ferocious energy, which comes through in the all too brief the live footage. Perhaps because of Curtis’s suicide, there is something eerie about watching them though, as if they’re playing from across the void.

There will never be a final word on Joy Division and there doesn’t need to be, either in terms of their small, but epochal body of work or the black hole of Curtis’s suicide. But this and Control make for an absorbing and near definitive portrait of an iconic band.

by Lukas Sherman

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