It’s a movie about the singer in a band, and it hangs on the music. The music is pretty good. The singer -songwriter is Ian Curtis, and the band is Joy Division. Joy Division, which transmuted into New Order after Curtis’ death, were after my time, and I was not familiar with any of their music. Bowie tunes in on the soundtrack early on; there’s a touch of Kraftwerk, Iggy Pop, The Buzzcocks and Various Artists of the period. Joy Division feature, not unexpectedly, and New Order provides a track or two, plus incidentals. Some of it illustrates the unreasonableness of showing this movie in any venue without a dance floor. The actor-musicians—or musician-actors—roll their own in all scenes of the band playing, and a fine fist they make of it. I could be persuaded that the development of New Order‘s music influenced the covers on-screen, especially in the drive of the drumming.
What happens? Ian Curtis is still at school when he takes up with his best mate’s girl, Debbie. Some short time later, he proposes to her. Meanwhile, a local band is looking for a lead singer. So, while holding down a job at the local Labour Exchange, Ian starts performing with the band. They record an EP, and at about the same time, he suggests to Debbie that they start a new venture of their own. The band gets a new manager, a recording contract, and Debbie gets larger and more marginalised from the life of the band.
In a car on the way back from their first London gig, Ian has the first fit of his epilepsy. The drugs he requires for the epilepsy mean he can’t keep his day job and perform with the band, so Debbie, with a new baby, starts working as a barmaid. While touring, he meets Annik, who becomes part of his life on the road. Ian’s fits continue, in spite of his medications, and he becomes increasingly wretched at the point of the triangle. In a moment of desperation he tells Debbie that he wouldn’t mind if she wanted to sleep with other men, which she immediately interprets correctly. A search of his LPs yields Annik’s name and phone number; an interrogation of Ian yields not a word. He repents, but his resolution to break with Annik fails him, and the affair continues. Ian can’t cope with it though, writes a note to Debbie mentioning Annik, and ODs. The strands unravel. When he recovers, Ian separates from Debbie, but can’t commit to Annik. This conflict simmers on, and, on the eve of the band’s first US tour, Ian has a severe fit, and, on waking, hangs himself.
The triangle gives the movie its dramatic focus, and the epilepsy is, dramatically speaking, a godsend. It provides a visual shorthand for the eventually fatal stress that is building up in Ian’s life. Sam Riley is convincing as a schoolboy and gripping as a man on the rack between his wife and his lover. It helps that he has a magnetic screen presence. Samantha Morton, however, is never anything less than a woman, and is not convincing as a teenager. This underlines the dramatic flaw in the story.
As presented, Ian Curtis is a young man whose talent as a rock star expresses itself within the simpler emotional world of Macclesfield, in which the conflict between love for, and duty towards, his wife, and love for his mistress can tear a man apart. As sympathetic, or empathetic, as this conflict is, one side of the triangle has been insufficiently explicated. The development of an affair with a beautiful and attentive woman who asks offbeat questions in an interview, is something we can easily understand, especially in the context of a rock band; isn’t it de rigeur? But aren’t rock stars above the moral and emotional constraints of mere mortals? In the face of such expectations, the nature of Ian’s relationship with Debbie deserves to be more carefully established. In the movie, it seems out of context with the development of Ian’s musical self-consciousness.
This portrait of the artist as a young man shows, on the one hand, the Bowie fan with eye makeup, and on the other, the teenager proposing to his girlfriend. The contrast jars, and gives no dramatic support to the later power of his attachment to Debbie. It’s not because of his daughter; the closest he gets to her is rocking the pram while Debbie gets a job, and the only comment on his feeling for her is the shot of him through the bars of the playpen, before he runs away. We need more of the teenage lovers, and more to establish the conservative and traditional side of Ian’s personality. The conflict on which the movie is carried, derives from the conflict in the personality between the avant-garde artist and the traditionalist, and probably between two sets of values. But of these conflict we see only the effects.
The movie was shot in colour, and printed in black and white. That, I think, is a handicap. Go and see it for Sam Riley, for the music, and as a bonus, for Toby Kebbell as Rob Gretton, the fast-talking DJ who takes over as their manager.