Coming out the same year as the excellent fictionalised account Control but enjoying its BBC premiere just now, the 2007 documentary Joy Division is the essential documentary that examines the beginnings, rise, and fall of Ian Curtis and Joy Division. The filmmakers managed to get all the New Order members together to confess their hearts and tell it like it was. Control was a great biopic, artistic and intellectually stimulating, but it’s not exactly the way it was. Here, we see how it was. The band members excitedly describe their inspiration at the Sex Pistols concert and their formation of the classic post-punk band. We start from the promising Warsaw days, and the band evolves from the fierce punk sound of Warsaw to become its unforgettable Joy Division sound. They describe the enigma of Ian Curtis’ character and his dark, brooding lyrics and idiosyncratic stage presence, and how he changed as a person, becoming disconnected from the group over time and suffering epileptic fits.
What really interested me was the human geography in Ian Curtis’ songs. The film visualises this idea, taking us through the industrial streets of Manchester. I think what really resonated with people was how deeply personal and emotional his songs were. ‘She’s Lost Control’ is about a young woman whom Ian had encountered at work, and who suffered epileptic fits and died from them. We see how much he pours into his performance onstage, dancing uncomfortably and enduring epileptic bouts. I think Peter Hook relates a story where they were on in a car together and Curtis started punching everyone, and then suffered grand mal epileptic seizures. It was hard for his friends to see him like this. They wanted to understand, but couldn’t. Curtis clearly had his own demons haunting him who, alongside the pressures of expectation and performance, ate away at his mind. We feel his tortured soul in the music, see it in his eyes in the performances and promotional stills, accompanied by Peter Hook’s killer bass lines and Bernard Sumner’s amazing, ominous riffs. There are lots of great performances here, as well as insightful interviews from the women in Curtis’ life, as well as an interview with Alan Hempsall from Crispy Ambulance (another great post-punk band) and the Factory record producers. Even Genesis P-orridge, who was the last known person to talk to Curtis before he committed suicide, makes an appearance.
Many stories have been told about Factory records and Joy Division (24 Hour People is another with some awesome performances, but not much else, especially if you don’t like Steve Coogan), but this one truly tells it from the heart, with all the information and details that you need to know. The death of Ian Curtis was a terrible event that is made all the more tragic with the band members’ revelations. It is something they will never forget, and lives on in New Order, which birthed from the ashes of Joy Division to become incredibly successful. While it enjoyed a cult following in the ’70s and ’80s, Joy Division has gained an immense following over the years, with Unknown Pleasures becoming a staple and iconic post-punk record. Joy Division effectively captures the joys, hardships, tragedy, endurance, substance, and rebirth of this great band.