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20/20 Filmsight - Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Joy Division

June 22nd 2010 06:39
by Matt Shea
Joy Division

The rockumentary is a difficult beast to get right. Often laden with sycophancy, crippled by fractious claim and counterclaim, or perhaps just hopelessly one-eyed, you’d be a brave cinemagoer to swan into such a non-fiction film without at least some idea about its actual quality.

With Joy Division, writer Jon Savage and director Grant Gee show how to do rockumentary the right way. Thorough but personal, affectionate yet lucid, Savage and Gee weave their subject into the very fabric of Manchester itself, claiming that the seminal post-punk band, Joy Division, were instrumental in the renaissance of an at-the-time spent industrial force.

The Manchester of the late 70s and early 80s was a grim place. Once the industrial leader of the world, the city was a wreck by the time four 20-year-olds came together to create a humble punk band. Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner tells how he didn’t even see a tree until he was nine years old.

Of course, Joy Division wouldn’t turn out to be just another punk band. Instead, they would go on to forge their own sound, something that nobody had heard before. Regional television personality and Factory Records founder Tony Wilson (played so memorably by Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People) sums it up in typical lucid style when he says Joy Division took the seemingly dead-end punk ethos of ‘Fuck you!’, expanding upon it to say ‘I’m fucked’.

Joy Division’s rise would be meteoric but ultimately cut short by the death of Ian Curtis in 1980, the lead singer, struggling with bipolar disorder and a failing marriage, hanging himself in his own kitchen. The remaining members – Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris – would go on to form the equally influential New Order, but Joy Division retains its place in rock history as one of the most important bands of the modern era.

Savage and Gee have done so much work with this documentary. There are numerous talking heads – including all the surviving band members, the now deceased Wilson, producer Martin Hannett, designer Peter Saville, photographer Anton Corbijn (who directed his own film about Ian Curtis and Joy Division with 2007’s Control), underground filmmaker Malcolm Whitehead, infamous agent provocateur Genesis P Orridge and, interestingly, Curtis’s girlfriend at the time Annik Honoré – as well as reel upon reel of archived footage.

It would have been easy for the film to get snowed in under all the information it tries to suck in and spew out, but Savage and Gee prove themselves excellent storytellers. Everything is tight and focussed, from the opening comments tying Joy Division to the fate of Manchester right through to the bear-like Hook agonising over having not visited Curtis in the chapel following the lead singer’s death. Gee is careful to keep things moving and Jerry Chater’s amazing editing job wraps the film up in a nice, neat but innovative bundle.

Whitehead’s almost mythical 1979 short film on the band is used to great effect, the stillness of the camera – and indeed Sumner and Hook – contrasting beautifully with the almost trancelike performance of Curtis and the attention deficit drumming of Morris. If you see these scenes on a cinema screen, you are blessed indeed. Elsewhere, the filmmakers pull a sublime trump card with the playing of an audiotape made by Sumner, recorded shortly before Curtis’s death, where the guitarist hypnotised the troubled singer. The results are unnervingly spooky, the two bandmates searching desperately through Curtis’s childhood and perhaps a past life to find an answer to his declining health.

The other notable inclusion in the documentary is Annik Honoré. Often seen in a negative light, Joy Division illustrates a sympathetic character who still grieves the loss of her lover. Not making an appearance is Deborah Curtis, the singer’s wife (they were married in 1975, Ian aged 19, Deborah 18), but Savage and Gee give her a heavy presence also through the use of numerous passages taken from her book, Touching From a Distance.

It’s all put together with a beautiful balance of heart and precision, and as you watch Joy Division you begin to truly understand the effect these four young Mancunians had on popular culture. You’re left with the impression that Joy Division weren’t only the trailblazers of a post-punk movement, but rather a divine interjection in history that changed the musical and social landscape of Manchester, sparking its transformation from an industrial revolution hangover into a vibrant and progressive city. An absolutely sublime piece of documentary filmmaking.

I say:
A non-fiction film made by people who understand completely the subject, Joy Division is one of the finest rockumentaries you’re ever likely to come across.

See it for: There’s so much to take in, but the archival footage is spectacular, and the candid (and often very amusing) interviews priceless.

*This image is from History of Our World

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15 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by ant

June 22nd 2010 06:42
Nice write up Matt. That screen cap is kinda spooky too!

Comment by David O'Connell

June 22nd 2010 06:57
As in Control Matt, I have little affinity with or knowledge of this band's music but it sounds like this is a doco not to miss regardless of my ignorance. Nice work again mate.

Comment by Matt Shea

June 22nd 2010 07:49
Thanks Ant. I can't actually confirm whether or not this is from the actual film, although I'm sure it's from one of the performances contained within the film. Either way, spooky stuff indeed.

Comment by Matt Shea

June 22nd 2010 07:52
Yeah, thanks Dave, I think you only need to have a passing knowledge of the band and their milieu to get the most out of this. It's a great rocko, full of unembellished emotion - check it out if you get the chance.

Comment by Tracy

June 22nd 2010 09:03
I love Joy Division and really want to see this one. I've want to see Control but haven't got around to it yet...I must soon!!

Comment by Matt Shea

June 22nd 2010 09:10
Thanks for stopping by Tracy. Definitely check this out when you can. I must admit to have not having seen Control - something I need to get on top of - but I really can't recommend this highly enough.

Comment by ShaunK

June 22nd 2010 10:25
Mighty fine review Matt.
I got excited as I read this - it looks like a mighty fine companion piece to Control.

An interview with Annik Honoré, sounds like it's worth the price of admission alone. That tape recording of a hypnotised Curtis would have been quite something to listen to.

This review did remind me that Joy Division not only opened a whole new avenue for post-punk but gave Manchester an identity, a sound that was associated with something more than just punk and angry young men (they werent the only ones of course but they were still a big part of the whole scene).

I'll have to check it out at some point soon - also thanks alot for linking this review to me!

Comment by Matt Shea

June 22nd 2010 11:01
Thanks Shaun, and you're welcome - it was your review of Control that inspired me to get off my bum and provide a proper review of this.

There's so much to recommend here that I hardly knew where to start, but the hypnotism is enough to make you s**t your pants - very spooky.

What I said in the final para is the best summation I could come up with regarding the emotional impact this film has - you're left thinking not what a shame it was that Joy Division only lasted a few years but feeling blessed that they simply existed, no matter how short the time was, that they resurrected a city and made the world a more beautiful place.

Comment by JohnDoe

June 25th 2010 01:51
Another top shelf review Matt, made me want to rush out and see this one....after all Control was very rewarding too

Comment by Matt Shea

June 25th 2010 02:44
Thanks JD - yeah, get your hands on this when you can. Great doco that deserves to be seen, whether your a fan of the band or not.

Comment by ShaunK

June 29th 2010 10:38
Matt - I saw a doco about Joy Division in JB hifi but wasnt sure if it was this one or not - is this a review for a doco on them thats 69 minutes, cause thats the length of the one I saw.

Comment by Matt Shea

June 29th 2010 10:56
Hey Shaun - probably not - its running time is listed as 74 minutes. This be it here.

Comment by Mountain Fog

July 2nd 2010 08:59
awww they were okaaay I guess, not my faves, I preferred the Sex Pistols, my faves being 'I am the AntiChrist' and 'God Save the Queen', but then, most of my idols were already long dead by the time they came about, Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison, they were my besties, and all dead in a couple of years of each other, bad decade for death the 70's, quite a few pals bit the dust on the end of a needle too.



Comment by Matt Shea

July 2nd 2010 09:08
Haha - cheers Fog. Yeah, this doco does a great job at contextualising the band, and for that reason alone it is well worth checking out.

Joplin and Hendrix were great, for sure, but I'm not so crash hot about Morrison. Nevertheless, the 70s was no doubt an awful decade for rock deaths.

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