I went to see that film about Joy Division – the documentary, not the Anton Corbijn one. Having read Deborah Curtis' Touching From A Distance and been exposed to the mass media I am broadly familiar with the story of Joy Division. Essentially, four lads from Manchester form a punk band, and develop their own brooding and hypnotic sound that meshes well with the intensity of their lead singer; just when the band seem like they are on the brink of mega success, their singer kills himself, torn apart by the stresses of incipient stardom, his emerging epilepsy, and his own tangled domestic situation.
The film treads this well-worn path, but a couple of things make it worth seeing even if you know where the road ends. For one thing, sitting in a cinema while Joy Division tunes pump out of the speakers reminds you of just how great the band were. It is also fascinating to see the various Manchester locations associated with the band. For all the grimy grimness of so much of the footage, it really made me want to revisit the city, to an even greater extent than 24 Hour Party People did. And I particularly enjoyed all the to camera chit chat from the surviving members of the band, who have always come across as rather comical characters. Some of the other speakers were excellent too, with Paul Morley surprising me by saying something interesting (for which read something I agree with) – that 'Love Will Tear As Apart' should be thought of as a pop song, and that in other circumstances it could have made its way to number one.
It is also striking how much footage of the band playing there was. I always think of the past as being an era where people went to concerts and just enjoyed them, without feeling obliged to record a two-dimensional version of them for posterity. But with Joy Division it seems like a great many of their concerts were recorded, either on 8 mm film or primitive portable video cameras. This footage reveals a surprising Joy Division fact – that Ian Curtis' on-stage dancing looked pretty comical, kind of like what your dad would do if he found himself fronting a kewl band.
The film took the usual Joy Division route of idolising Ian Curtis. Do not get me wrong, I am not down on his singing or lyrics, and I see his contribution as vital to the success of the band. But his sad end means that the story of Joy Division too much becomes his story, obscuring the equally vital contribution of the others. There is a power to so many of the bands' tunes that exists almost independently of the vocals, perhaps best noticed on something like 'Dead Souls' with its long, doomy, and vocals-free intro. The others were not Ian Curtis' backing band, as their later success as New Order would demonstrate.
Towards the end, I was glad that I was watching this film and not Corbijn's Control. The slow countdown to Curtis' death and then its aftermath was quite hard to bear, and I reckoned it would be a bit much in a narrative film. So maybe this documentary should be advertised as "Less Depressing Than Control"