Rock ‘N’ roll has never been solely about the music. From Chuck Berry’s strut across the stage, to The Beatles’ mop haircut, to Bowie’s eye shadow and Jagger’s scandalously tight pants, rock ‘n’ roll has been about attitude and image as much as the music itself. If the songs make you imagine new horizons, the rest gives you wings to fly there.
Control, Anton Corbijn’s 2007 portrait of Joy Division and its front man, Ian Curtis, is the story of such a flight. If rock ‘n’ roll helps you escape the drab and grey monotony of everyday life, then Ian Curtis’ longing for escape is wholly justified, for there are few places as grey and dreary as the English Northwest circa 1973. Corbijn shows both this monotony, and the inevitability of the need for something more, in the first act of the film, as a young Ian Curtis resorts to stealing prescription drugs from an elderly woman for a quick high, in a surprisingly heartfelt and light scene, which nevertheless succeeds in illustrating the irrepressible need for something more.
But it is the allure and promise of rock ‘n’ roll, and everything it represents, that is the ultimate drug for Ian. In a revealing, early scene, a shirtless Ian listens to the wail of Mick Ronson’s guitar on Jean Genie as he lays on his bed, smoking his cigarette, before standing up and examining himself in the mirror.
Dancing in the mirror, his reflection sits comfortably alongside posters of Bowie and Lou Reed that adorn his walls. “Let yourself go” he sings along to the chorus, pointing at the mirror and winking playfully. And at that moment he is a star. He belongs on that wall.
This faith in the freeing power of a rock ‘n’ roll state of mind is best illustrated in the most playful shot in the film. Having documented Joy Division’s meteoric rise and abrupt end in iconic, black and white photographs as a rock journalist, Anton Corbijn opted to shoot Control in luscious, high-contrast black and white (shot on Kodak colour-stock, then printed onto black and white interpositive stock, before being colour corrected at Nordisk Film in Stockholm). Furthermore, he decided to compose the film in mostly still shots. That is why, the following shot, the only Steadicam shot in the entire film, and one of only two moving shots, stands out so beautifully:
For a brief moment in time, this is Ian as a rock star. Even more so then than when he is actually one. The swagger with which he struts down the street to the driving bass of No Love Lost, the impeccably timed stop to light a cigarette, he looks like he is ready to take on all comers, a point that is emphasized half-way through the shot as the camera allows Ian to go ahead, following him from that point on, and revealing the word ‘HATE’ scrawled on the back of his jacket. Where is this young, bright star, with his ‘fuck you’ attitude and puffed out, peacock chest going? The answer, is the punchline of the shot, as the sign on his eventual destination slowly comes into focus: “Employment Exchange - Department of Employment”.
But Control is a smarter film than that, and in the following scene we choke on the easy laugh that the gag may have brought us, as Ian is revealed as a genuinely caring employee at the job we have already assumed he hates with every bone in his body. We see him go above the call of duty to help a developmentally challenged young man find some form of employment that will bring him more than a bum paycheque, something he might enjoy and find solace in.
Corbijn is playing a crafty game of making us believe we know who Ian is and what he wants, before challenging any easy notions we may have arrived at. That pattern is repeated time and again, as we, along with Ian, come to realize that sometimes ‘drab’ is a state of mind, ‘grey’ is in your bloodstream, and there is no escape. That’s not a realization everyone can survive.