I can’t recall what motivated me to buy Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures when I was in high school. I may have been drawn to Peter Saville’s excellent cover art — a stark black and white image that resembled a drawing of dozens of tiny mountain ranges stacked neatly on top of one another — and which in reality were the radio waves of a dying star.
What I do recall is my initial reaction to the music. I was nonplussed. Bewildered. Slightly intrigued, but, more than anything else, terribly disquieted. It was icy, terse, neurotic. It sounded like someone trying, unsuccessfully, to work through a terrible mental illness. I didn’t like it. Not at first, anyway.
Joy Division wasn’t the first band I had to grow into. Another one that mightily challenged my then-virgin ears was the Velvet Underground. But that was a matter of sloppiness and shitty production values more than anything. With Joy Division, it was a matter of the band’s unnervingly canny ability to conjure the demons of its lead singer, Ian Curtis. It was disturbing on a very elemental level. Anthony Wilson, founder of the legendary Factory Records, put it this way: “Punk enabled you to say ‘Fuck you’, but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked’, and that was Joy Division.”
Unlink so many goth bands — who always seemed comically melodramatic to me — Joy Division had a bone-chilling directness about it. There was no hiding from the pathological despair. The throbbing bass, metronomic drums and deliberate guitar were each eerie and foreboding in their own ways. But most unsettling of all was Curtis’ voice. Blood-curdling in its austerity, it was the sonic equivalent of black.
What [director Anton] Corbijn doesn’t get is any kind of reasonable explanation for how such a normal-seeming guy and the three moderately talented lads he shared a stage with managed to write and perform songs as shattering as “Disorder,” “She’s Lost Control,” “Transmission,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Something reached down and touched them. But what?
If you’re a Joy Division fan, whether or not you’ll like Control depends on what you want out of it. If you’re cool with a conventional narrative that humanizes Curtis (the other band members are treated peripherally) while revealing how his epilepsy and an unhappy marriage (in which his own unfaithfulness, the movie suggests, exacerbated his depression) led to his suicide, you’ll find it satisfying. But if you’re looking for insight into how Curtis and his bandmates managed to write such original and devastatingly dark music, don’t bother. Instead, just watch the Youtube clips. Here’s a nice one.