Toronto Film Festival

Two beautiful movies about Joy Division recall 1980 as if it were yesterday. Plus: An indie crowd pleaser likely to stir up abortion discussion.

Published September 11, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

I remember seeing "The Big Chill" in 1983, when I was 22, and hating both the movie and the characters in it. Old hippies! They acted as if they'd invented music. It didn't matter that I loved much of the same music they did, their Stones, their Marvin Gaye, their Aretha Franklin. It was simply that they lived in a world where the Clash, Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, X-Ray Spex or any number of the bands my friends and I had been listening to couldn't possibly have any meaning. We had our own music, a wild and untamed soundtrack for our own confused lives, and yet they acted as if their music were the only kind that mattered.

In 2008 I still hate "The Big Chill," but I've softened a bit toward the characters. When you hit middle age, the music you listened to when you were young either can be a nostalgic crutch or can come to mean something entirely new. Sometimes when you hear a song at 45 that meant the world to you at 20, the person you used to be reaches out to connect with the person you've come to be. The few extra pounds, the slight graying (or total loss) of hair: Music is unbound by any corporeal rules and regulations. It stays young inside us even as we age.

Maybe that's why I felt such transcendence watching "Control," Anton Corbijn's lovely and deeply touching picture about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division. Joy Division were a revered Manchester, England, band that made only two albums before Curtis killed himself in 1980, just before the band was to leave on its first U.S. tour. Curtis -- who is often described by the adjective depressive, although "Control" doesn't speak in that sort of clinical, definitive language -- wrote gorgeous songs that never reduced melancholia to a single shade: In his short life (he died at 23), he found plenty of colors in sadness.

Many bands have found bigger audiences than Joy Division did, but few have been loved so fiercely. Corbijn was a young photographer living in his native Holland when he first heard them; as he said when I spoke with him briefly here in Toronto, "Their music was powerful enough for me to actually move countries." Corbijn has been shooting portraits of rock 'n' roll musicians for some 30 years; he has also directed videos for the likes of U2 and Depeche Mode. "Control" is his first feature, but it's so quietly assured that it doesn't seem like a debut.

A young musician and actor named Sam Riley plays Curtis, and his performance has just the right amount of gravity. Curtis formed Joy Division (which first went by the name Warsaw) in 1976 with three bandmates, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris (played, respectively, by Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson and Harry Treadaway). He was already a married man at the time: He and his wife, Deborah (played by Samantha Morton, in a moving and delicately controlled performance), had wed when she was 18, he 19. ("Control" is based on the memoirs of Deborah Curtis.) By day, Curtis worked in a civil service job, helping people with disabilities find suitable work. Just as the band was hitting its stride, he was diagnosed with epilepsy, which he treated with an array of drugs whose effects could be unpredictable. He also fell in love with a young Belgian woman, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), a relationship that obviously complicated and rattled his marriage.

As sad as the Ian Curtis story is, Corbijn and his actors let so much air and light into the movie that it's never oppressive. The songs are performed by Riley and the actors who portray his bandmates, and they work as a homage to the band's music rather than a dogged re-creation of it. And "Control" is, to put it plainly, the most beautiful-looking picture I've seen all year: Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe shot it in black-and-white -- it was the natural palette for a movie about Curtis and Joy Division, Corbijn explains -- and the picture is lighted so artfully that it has a velvety glow. Partly because of the luminousness of the black-and-white images, and partly because of the way these young men look in their trim schoolboy haircuts, "Control" carries echoes of the photographs Astrid Kirchherr took of the young Beatles. Despite the fact that we know how the story ends, there's still a freshness about the picture, a hopeful sense of adventure.

What's most touching about "Control" is that it reminds us that these four guys making some very heavy music were really just kids. "The movie doesn't try to make them into big mythological people," Corbijn says. "It's very down to earth, really. It's very human. It's basically the story of a young boy finding his way, and getting lost."

Here in Toronto, someone asked me if "Control" would mean something only to people who care about Joy Division, or if it could work for anybody. But just who, exactly, do we mean by "anybody"? Of course, every moviegoer has his or her own tastes or expectations. But I never know how to answer that question when the film at hand is beautifully made and makes you care about its characters. I suppose the answer is, if you have no interest in people, you might not care much for "Control." But then, you might as well ask why you go to the movies in the first place.

* * *

This is clearly Joy Division's year. Grant Gee's documentary, "Joy Division," traces the evolution of the band and, most affectingly, suggests how the surviving band members dealt with (or, perhaps more accurately, couldn't bring themselves to deal with) Ian Curtis' death.

Sumner, Hook and Morris all show up here, as do Corbijn and Honoré, as well as the late Tony Wilson, the man who put Joy Division -- and the Manchester music scene -- on the map.

Gee's movie dovetails perfectly with Corbijn's. He has a knack for nonfiction storytelling: He never resorts to frenetic editing to capture our attention, nor does he bore us to death with expository voice-overs. The performance footage captures perfectly the weird magnetism of the band's live performances. The year 1980 may seem like a long time ago, but Grant's picture is so immediate, and so alive, that it may as well have been yesterday.

* * *

Later this fall, the movie all your friends will be seeing, and urging you to see, will be "Juno," Jason Reitman's hyperactive picture about a 16-year-old girl (played by the peppery Ellen Page, who gives a performance that's just one eyelash away from being exhausting to watch) who gets pregnant the first time she has sex (the baby's father is the scrawnily charming Michael Cera) and decides to give up the baby for adoption. The screenplay, by Diablo Cody, is a wall-to-wall carpet of oh-so-clever one-liners -- the picture might work better if there were some breathing space between them. But as much as I steeled myself against the wisecracking whimsy of "Juno," by the end it had mostly won me over. Reitman -- whose last picture was the limp satire "Thank You for Smoking" -- has the generosity to allow all of his actors a good moment or two, and some of them -- like the wonderful J.K. Simmons, as the pregnant protagonist's dad -- get more.

This is an indie crowd pleaser that's much more enjoyable -- in other words, not nearly as horrifying -- as "Little Miss Sunshine." The only downside is that although the picture shows no evidence of having a right-to-life agenda, it's going to spawn a million Sunday arts section stories about the new "trend" -- which began, of course, with "Knocked Up" -- in movies about women who choose to not have abortions. If either "Juno" or "Knocked Up" spewed any nonsense about abortion being murder, I'd be worried. But in both movies the women simply decide, impulsively, that they'd just rather not terminate their pregnancies. Sometimes a choice is just a choice. But you know how hard it is to come up with those Sunday arts section ideas.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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