08 February 2008

The Void on celluloid...

Control, the movie about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who took his life in 1979, came out last year, and guess which lazy blogger is only getting around to writing about it now?

As befits a film with photographer/video-tician Anton Corbijn at the helm, Control looks fantastic, especially the "live" footage. Musically it's something of a (pleasant) surprise too. The actors actually play their instruments reasonably well, and while they're no Joy Division, they come as close as you could ever get to evoking the spirit of the band in performance. Some of it is based closely on clips of the original band, playing live and on TV, and a lot of work obviously went into these very impressive sequences. And yes, it is in black and white, like many of Corbijn's great rock photos were back in the day.

Control is based on Touching From A Distance, Deborah Curtis' memoir of life with her late husband. The book itself was guileless and honest, and the movie has something of that tone. Unlike the book, though, Corbijn also draws on others' memories of the Joy Division years, so the portrayal of all that boys-on-the-road stuff, as well as Ian Curtis' affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, is a bit better fleshed out.

It's interesting to compare this with the first half of 24 Hour Party People, which treated of the rise of Joy Division and Curtis' untimely suicide with less depth but great economy, and a certain amount of black humour. Control for its part tends to focus on romance and relationships. It reminds me more than a little of Walk The Line, which was more love-story-told-with-real-characters-and-based-loosely-on-real-events than straightforward biopic, but quite effective for all that.

This movie is clearly aimed at a younger audience, the sort of people who buy records by modern bands who've been namechecking Joy Division and Curtis as an influence. And why not? Control tells the tale with exactly the right balance of sympathy and objectivity, humour and honesty.

I really didn't expect to like this, but it was well worth watching. Like I say, it's a seriously good-looking film, with enough substance to justify all the pretty pictures. And if it gets a new generation into the music of Joy Division, then I for one will be very happy indeed.

I was not so happy about Once, directed by former Frames bass guitarist John Carney, which is only just out (though I managed to get hold of a preview copy last year). It features Frames lead singer Glenn Hansard (who first appeared on cinema screens as Outspan in The Commitments) and Czech songstress Markéta Irglova in a sort of musical romantic tale set on the streets of Dublin's fair city. I expected to like it - I've seen it several times now, and really tried to like it, but I'm sorry, it just left a bad taste.

I'm not a big fan of the Frames' music, though I do admire them for the fact that they've survived as a band despite all the begrudgery and sheer malice they've had to endure in their native land. The kind of spite that would be more properly levelled at, say, that other Dublin band, the one whose name consists of a letter followed by a number...

Anyhoo, Hansard plays a street busker and Irglova a flower-girl (awww) who also turns out to be a pianist. They bond over her broken vacuum cleaner, which he mends (that's his day job, y'see). Then they get to know each other and help each other out musically. And, well, that's about it.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this movie, but what is all the fuss about? Do Seppoes think they have, like, totally cute accents and stuff?

It's not that Once doesn't have some good qualities - Hansard and Irglova are both fine musicians, and though not 'proper' actors, they have a pretty good onscreen chemistry. Their friendship develops believably. The music isn't my cup of tea, but it's worked well into the movie. Director Carney clearly knows his stuff. The ending may be a bit of a cop-out but at least it's not standard boy-gets-girl schmaltz. It's just that I couldn't find anything in this that actually added up to, you know, A Movie.

Joy Division were a band whose music was associated with despair and alienation but actually had its own cathartic, uplifting power. And some of that came through in Control. Whereas Once, for all its celebration of the joys of music and the virtues of friendship and (tentative) romance, just leaves an empty feeling. As though one had just been watching an adaptation of Notting Hill for raggle-taggle groupies.

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