As Ian Curtis, the singer and emotional epicenter for doomy Brit post-punkers Joy Division, Riley is like some splintery, spastic matchstick man, all knees and elbows and rolling eyes, permanently singed by unknown pleasures, flaring to life only when onstage in front of an ever-burgeoning crowd. Curtis, stricken by panic attacks and epilepsy, would have none of it, however much he thought he wanted it; he hung himself from the wash-line in the kitchen of the flat he shared with his estranged wife, Deborah (Morton). He was 23 years old, and Joy Division, later to reincarnate as the far less gloom-struck band New Order, was on the eve of its first American tour. Remarkable in temper and tone, poise and performance, Control
transcends its punk and post-punk biographical underpinnings (you don't have to know who Tony Wilson was to appreciate the film or why Manchester, UK, is to this day the birthing ground of so many genius musicians) by virtue of its sullenly hopeful narrative. Even though we're aware of the tragic trajectory of the singer's life, for a while it almost seems as if reality got it wrong and Curtis might just squeak past the reaper's scythe with no more than a shave and a haircut. Shot in crisp black and white (by Martin Ruhe) that mirrors the band's grim downbeats and Manchester's grimy brick-and-cobble avenues and alleyways, Control
is easily one of the finest films ever made about the collision of music, madness, and the human heart. Corbijn, who had the good fortune to photograph Joy Division back in the day, wisely never makes the mistake of overexplaining his subject. Curtis suffered from epilepsy and may have been manic-depressive, but Matt Greenhalgh's script doles out enough lifeline to make the doomed singer less a ticking time bomb than a heartsick, often physically ill young man torn between two women and one band. The women – Curtis' wife, Deborah, and his lover, Annik (Lara) – come to his aid repeatedly, but Curtis only ever seems truly alive when he's performing with his bandmates (Anderson, Pearson, and Treadaway, who, along with Riley, perform all of Joy Division's songs with astonishing fidelity). As was the case throughout the life of Joy Division, Control
is not without its own sense of gallows humor. "Everything feels wrong," an exhausted Curtis murmurs, his head on Annik's lap, to which band manager Rob Gretton (Kebbell) offers: "Cheer up. It could be worse. You could be the singer for the Fall." That brief, almost throwaway exchange, in essence, captures the enduring dark beauty of Joy Division's music and muse: It's a miserable world all right, but at least we're in a band. Or, to quote current BBC chart-toppers (and former South by Southwesters) the Wombats, "Let's dance to Joy Division and celebrate the irony, ’cause everything is going wrong, but we're so happy."