No Context: Sam Riley Talks About Control
No Context by Zach Baron
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Through November 1st, Film Forum
Two weeks before beginning work on Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis-biopic Control, the cast and crew visited a New Order show, seeking inspiration, or guidance, or approval from the three-out-of-four men whose early lives they'd soon represent onscreen. Most awkward, by his own account, was the presence of Sam Riley, who was to play Ian Curtis--the one member of the silver-screen band who lacked a real-life counterpart, since the occasion for the film was, at least in part, Curtis' May 18th, 1980 suicide. "They didn't offer all that much advice," recalled Riley at last night's Film Forum screening. "Bernard Sumner sort of patted me on the back and said, 'Have fun.'"
As it happens, this is by all accounts the way Sumner talked to Ian Curtis when he was alive, too--the four members of Joy Division were known to be reticent, with each other and famously with the press. In one scene in the film, Curtis has just had an epileptic seizure, one in an increasingly disturbing series of them, while onstage; he's just told his wife, with whom he has recently had a child and who he married at the age of 19, that he no longer loves her; and in the crowd, watching as he collapses at the back of the stage, is Annik Honoré, the girlfriend he can't give up. The band's manager, Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) lays Curtis out on a couch backstage and says, by way of comforting him: "Could be worse. . . You could be the lead singer in the Fall."
Coincidentally, Sam Riley did play the lead singer of the Fall, Mark E. Smith, in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, the Factory Records film which many assumed would be the last word on Joy Division and Ian Curtis onscreen, and in which Anton Corbijn's elegiac 1988 video for "Atmosphere" plays as a final, gut-punch memorial. Corbijn, a photographer who took some of the more iconic photographs of the band in the last year of their existence, had yet to direct a film before Control, but no one doubted that, with his proven understanding of the band's mute aesthetic and seeming ability to appreciate a distant band from a distance, he was perhaps the perfect man for the job.
And, in fact, Control is eerily (mundanely, even) faithful to the Joy Division mythology. There are the books on the shelves of Curtis' childhood bedroom - J.G. Ballard and Ginsburg - and the records on his stereo: Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. There are the constant references by every interviewer, fan, and TV personality to the Buzzcocks; the foundational Sex Pistols concert; the change in name from Warsaw to Joy Division. There is the inexplicable "You all forgot Rudolf Hess!" boast by Curtis, pulled right off of the legendary Short Circuit Manchester punk EP, and there is the night that Curtis died: the fight with his wife Deborah, the half-empty bottle, Herzog's Stroszek on the TV, Iggy Pop's The Idiot on the record player, and at last the noose in the kitchen.