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Joy Division - The Movie

By Mike Love

 

I thought it was supposed to be the Sex Pistols who were famous from milking every last drop of publicity (and, more importantly, filthy lucre) from the back of a pretty short-lived 'career'?  Joy Division - the Ian Curtis story in particular - also seem to be going the same way, though.  But this isn't cash from chaos or turning rebellion into money.  This is a tale of how love really can tear you apart.

 
Following on from the story of Factory Records (mainly Joy Division) in '24 Hour Party People', and the excellent Curtis bio-pic 'Control', comes the definitive documentary.  Archive footage, interspersed with interviews from most of those who mattered, traces the history of a band that were - through no fault of their own - short-lived, but who leave a legacy that still resonates today (and whose influence shows no sign of abating).
 
Like all movies that are going to appeal to a limited demographic (loners, weirdos, would-be suicides), this was never going to get a wide release.  It's difficult to imagine those stout young men of Croxteth, say, turning up at the Showcase in all their Lacoste finery and making positive comments about Hooky's low-hung bass.  Needs must, therefore, so I booked a day off work, and headed up to FACT, in Liverpool City Centre, for an 11.15am screening.
 
Two of us, there were, in the event.  Separately, I hasten to add, which seemed somehow apt.  The film lasts about 90 minutes, and begins, predictably, with the Sex Pistols debut in Manchester in '76 (with, for the first time, some archive footage of that now legendary gig).  Friends Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner decide that they have to form a band, and subsequently recruit Stephen Morris, on drums, and mild-mannered Job Centre Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer, Ian Curtis, on vocals.  'Warsaw' is the result, which, before long, changes it's name to 'Joy Divsion', and arouses the interest of Granada Reports journalist and Manchester muso, Tony Wilson.  You probably know the rest.  Seminal debut album in 'Unknown Pleasures', Curtis - recently married and a father - diagnosed with epilepsy; Curtis meets Belgian beauty Annik, and struggles to deal with both his condition and his conflicting emotions over his wife and lover; defining masterwork 'Closer' recorded in early 1980; American tour set to begin on 19 May; Ian Curtis kills himself on 18 May.  The End.
 
But it wasn't.  Joy Division continued, as New Order, to become - at one stage - one of the biggest bands in the world.  Less successful spin-off groups, such as 'Monaco', 'The Other Two' and 'Electronic'  formed but with minimal success, and the film pays these no heed.  This is, essentially, the story of one man and one band, and will probably be the final word.  And rightly so.  Virtually every stakeholder is given the opportunity to tell it like it was; Hooky's recollection of going back to his Sunday dinner, after the police had broken the news of Curtis's demise, is particularly haunting and amusing at the same time.  Barney Sumner recalls putting Ian under hypnosis in order to try and exorcise whatever demons were at play in this young man's fragile psyche; and the still-stunning Annik is articulate and wistful in her recalling of the difficult - and ultimately tragic - Autumn  / Spring period 1979/80.  Poignantly, there is also an interview with Wilson; clearly a man who was very ill but still wanting to add to what will be the definitive tale.  Interestingly, though, there are no words from either Deborah Curtis, or Ian's daughter Natalie.
 
The difficult thing about watching this story unravel, is that the ending can never change.  I saw Joy Division, at Mountford Hall, in 1979, but didn't really take it in (too busy looking forward to the Boomtown Rats at the Empire, would you believe?).  I remember Curtis flailing around the stage, and me thinking that he was a bit of a divvy in fairness.  How little I knew, and how I wish that the story could have had a happier conclusion.  God's sake, his suicide (7 months after that Liverpool gig) wasn't even romantic or heroic.  He wrapped one of those old-fashioned clothes lines - that hang from the back kitchen ceiling - around his neck, and leant against the washing machine, effectively strangling himself (and knowing - even with his unsound mind - that his wife would be the one to find his body).  The last record he heard, on this earth, was Iggy Pop's 'The Idiot'. 
 
Often, in rock 'n roll deaths, the musical legacy becomes beatified or given an importance that it certainly didn't deserve either in life or death.  Don't forget, Kurt Cobain was heavily influenced by 'The Exploited', and, as for Michael Hutchence, well, enough said.  Often, though, the deceased leaves behind an earthly back-catalogue of no little beauty.  I'm thinking Nick Drake.  I'm thinking Billy McKenzie.  And I am definitely thinking Ian Curtis.  'Unknown Pleasures' and 'Closer'; two albums; total running time about one hour and twenty minutes.  Both nearly thirty years old.  Still relevant today?  It's up to you, but buy them and you might, just might, be able to see the beauty of things I could never describe  . . . . .
 
 
 

 


 

 

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