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Post-punk band Joy Division were only around for a very short time but left a massive impression and would become one of the most influential bands of their time. They only recorded a couple of albums - 'Unknown Pleasures' and 'Closer' but both would immediately be afforded classic status. In recent years there has been quite a lot of interest in them and the Manchester music scene that spawned them which has resulted in a couple of excellent films, 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Control (2007). The latter of which focused specifically on the late Ian Curtis, singer in the group. He was a famously troubled individual who was afflicted with severe epilepsy. His dark, highly personal lyrics went some way in characterising the Joy Division sound. Far from a typical rock character, he worked in the civil service helping the disabled find work. He killed himself in 1980 on the eve of Joy Division's first North American tour, he was 23. While this film is not all about Curtis and is more about the band in general, his presence in their story remains colossal and ingrained.
The story is significantly about the setting as well. Industrialised Manchester was a pretty bleak place back in the 70's and it's from this backdrop that the band emerges. There wasn't a great deal of hope for a lot of young people at this time and their frustrations were vocalised in the punk rock scene. An early Sex Pistols gig in the Manchester Free Trade Hall proving to be a massively influential event which encouraged the members of the future Joy Division that they could form a group and do a similar thing. By the time the band got going, the restrictive nature of pure punk rock had meant that in order to take its ethos forward a new music which retained its attitude but expanded its musical palette had to be devised. Joy Division were one of the key early innovators in what would go on to be known as post-punk. The documentary really focuses solely on Joy Division themselves and not this wider, very original music scene which ultimately led to alternative rock.
The film is based around the recollections of the three surviving members Bernard Summer, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook. It also has contributions from many others involved directly in the story such as Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, while it looks back on the significant work of others no longer with us like producer Martin Hannett. Curtis's lover Annik Honoré appears but his wife Deborah does not; there is still some understandable bad feeling from the latter about how she and her child were treated specifically in relation to Curtis's relationship with Honoré. Because of the lack of media outlets at the time and the very underground nature of the band there really is a paucity of visual material of them, aside from some bootleg footage and some television appearances, in addition there is a strange taped audio conversation of Curtis while under hypnosis. But the film-makers do make the film visually interesting enough for you not to really notice this very much, with much footage of Manchester at the time which almost feels like it is from another world now. There are also many experts who offer ideas about high concepts that they believed the band were aiming for with their music. While these sound good, they are a common trait of music journalism in general where everything is over-analysed. The truth comes out more from the mouths of the band themselves where we learn that Hook's distinctive high pitched bass style was devised purely because it was easier for him to hear over the top of the rest of the group during band practice and we also learn that the rest of the group really paid very little attention to the actual content of Curtis' lyrics at all. Like most great music it was created by chance chemistry between individuals and there wasn't much more to it than that. All-in-all, an informative documentary which illustrates how significant a band Joy Division was.
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