When Anton Corbijn first heard Joy Division’s music in 1979, it spurred him to move from his native Holland to London. Within two weeks of settling in England, Corbijn had met the band — guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, drummer Stephen Morris and singer Ian Curtis — and begun shooting a series of iconic photographs with them. Their time together proved short, however; after the band had recorded only two full albums — Unknown Pleasures and Closer — Curtis hanged himself on the eve of Joy Division’s American tour in 1980.
Since then, the surviving members of Joy Division regrouped as New Order and Corbijn went on to earn acclaim as a music-video director, stepping into the feature arena only recently with his film Control. Based on the memoir Touching From a Distance by Deborah Curtis, whom Ian married in 1975 when they were both still in their teens, Control spans the years 1973-1980 and chronicles the singer’s rise from teenage obscurity to rock stardom, ending with his suicide when he was only 23.
To help tell Curtis’ story, Corbijn turned to director of photography Martin Ruhe, with whom he had collaborated on music videos for Depeche Mode and Coldplay, among others. Shooting with color stock, the filmmakers desaturated the images in the digital intermediate to end up with a black-and-white palette (AC Nov. ’07). In the supplements to the DVD, which was recently released as part of the Weinstein Company’s Miriam Collection imprint, Corbijn explains that the monochrome presentation reflects the black-and-white “collective memory of Joy Division,” constructed from the black-and-white photographs of the band, Joy Division’s black-and-white album sleeves and the director’s own dreary impression of London in the late 1970s.
Corbijn and Ruhe refrained from using storyboards, allowing improvisation within the locations, one of which included the actual exterior of the apartment where Ian and Deborah lived. (The apartment’s interiors were reconstructed onstage.) Additionally, they favored static compositions in which the actors could move about the 2.40:1 frame, making exceptions for handheld work during certain performances, the occasional dolly move and the lone Steadicam shot that follows the path Curtis walked to get to work.
The DVD transfer faithfully preserves the subtleties of Ruhe’s images, including the gradual increase in contrast as the film progresses and Curtis (Sam Riley) slips deeper into a depression fueled by his epilepsy diagnosis and the cocktail of medications he was subsequently prescribed, not to mention the stresses of touring, his romantic entanglement with Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) and gradual estrangement from his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton). The digital format also ensures a true black-and-white, whereas the film’s release prints would occasionally skew slightly green or red. Likewise, the Dolby 5.1 track accurately delivers the film’s varied aural landscape, from Riley’s somber voiceovers — based on actual letters written by Curtis — to the band’s raw performances.
At his actors’ urging, Corbijn decided to eschew playback and allow the actors to perform the songs themselves. James Anthony Pearson as Sumner, Joe Anderson as Hook and Harry Treadway as Morris nail Joy Division’s sound, and Riley seems to channel Curtis completely throughout the film. (Providing a glimpse of just how eerily dead-on Riley plays it, the disc includes Joy Division’s live performance of the song “Transmission” on the BBC program Something Else from September 1979.)
Extra features on the DVD include the 23-minute documentary “The Making of Control,” which includes interviews with a number of the actors as well as Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, and the 12-minute “In Control: A Conversation with Anton Corbijn.” The director’s comments get a bit repetitive across the various supplements, but his commentary track proves rewarding nevertheless; while the other featurettes fail to mention Ruhe’s contribution even as they discuss the use of black-and-white, the director’s commentary has much to say about his collaboration with the cinematographer. A stills gallery; extended concert performances of “Leaders of Men,” “Transmission” and “Candidate”; and music videos for “Atmosphere” and The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay” round out the supplements.
In his video interview on the disc, shot just before Control’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a special Caméra d’Or before going on to garner further accolades around the globe, Corbijn offers a précis of the film as a whole: “It’s really about this one guy who was a poet,” he says. “And Joy Division was where he spread the gospel.”