Last Friday I saw a documentary about Joy Division, the post-punk band from Manchester, England.
Featuring the unprecedented participation of all the surviving band members (now known as New Order), Joy Division examines the band’s story as depicted through never-before-seen live performance footage, personal photos, period films and newly discovered audiotapes. The greatest strength of the documentary is how director Grant Gee emulates the same stylistic aesthetic associated with the band, their music, their album art and the movement they spawned. Joy Division is a great looking documentary, visually compelling from beginning to end and its chock full of vintage, low-fi concert footage pulled out from the vaults.
The band – Stephen, Peter, Ian & Bernard
Two major dates bracket the film’s narrative: 4 June 1976, when the Sex Pistols played to a small audience at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester and 18 May 1980, the day Ian Curtis took his life and the eve of their US concert tour.
In June 1976 the fledgling band members thought ‘We can do that,’ and after several changes of name they became Joy Division. The revolutionary step they made was to progress from the usual punk groups’ angry statement: ‘Fuck you.’ Joy Division were the first to say: ‘We’re fucked.’
Gee traces the development of the band, their rapid progress as musicians working closely together, and the increasing depth and eloquence of Curtis’s lyrics, which draw on his fascination with Dostoevsky, Ginsberg, Kafka, Burroughs and JG Ballard. There is a particularly impressive sequence in which dark, despairing tracks of urban alienation and angst from the 1979 album Unknown Pleasures are accompanied by a speeded-up nocturnal journey around Manchester.
The middle-aged Sumner, Hook and Morris speak frankly about not being sufficiently supportive of the depressed, alienated Curtis, but recognise that they were young and immature. Their testimony is moving. The three of them are still playing together as New Order and one observer remarks that they’re ‘one of the last true stories’ in the cynical, commercialised pop business.
I’ve been looking out for this documentary since I saw Control last autumn, a film about the life and death of Ian Curtis. From a young age he exhibited talent as a poet. Although awarded a scholarship to attend the The King’s School, Macclesfield, at the age of 11, Curtis never pursued academic success.
As he grew older, his ambitions and hopes became focused on a pursuit of art and literature, eventually culminating in music. Many of Curtis’s writings were filled with imagery of emotional isolation, death, alienation, and urban degeneration. He once commented in an interview that he wrote about “the different ways different people can cope with certain problems, how they might or might not adapt”.
Ian Curtis used literature and composing lyrics and poetry to explore and express his inner turmoil, but tragically the people closest to him – his wife Deborah, lover Annike, musical colleagues and band members were unable to read between the lines and offer him a way through it.
Controlled Chaos – an article about Curtis’s literary influences
While performing for Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanor, as well as a unique dancing style reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he experienced, sometimes even on stage. Love Will Tear Us Apart (1979) is one of the few songs in which Ian Curtis played guitar. This session was recorded in the Manchester warehouse where the band practised.
Love Will Tear Us Apart
When the routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And the resentment rides high
But emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways
Taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again
Why is the bedroom so cold
Turned away on your side?
Is my timing that flawed,
Our respect run so dry?
Yet there’s still this appeal
That we’ve kept through our lives
Love, love will tear us apart again
Do you cry out in your sleep
All my failings exposed?
Get a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
Is it something so good
Just can’t function no more?
When love, love will tear us apart again
– Ian Curtis