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In 'Control,' A Rock Star's Painful Pursuit Of Happiness

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

"Control," which culminates with the 1980 suicide of English pop star Ian Curtis, isn't designed to send us home with a fuzzy glow in the heart. But this unsentimental treatment of the musician's tortured life moves us in ways more conventional rock-star biopics rarely do -- by making us appreciate the happiness that always eluded him.

The frontman and founder of Joy Division, a post-punk band at the tail end of the 1970s, Curtis seemed to have very little joy of his own. Yet happiness is the movie's most compelling force by its very absence. Like the proverbial elephant in the living room, it sits unspoken with a certain tonnage on everyone's mind. And amid the postindustrial, soul-debilitating gloom of Manchester, England, no one seems more morose than Curtis (Sam Riley), a gangly teenager in the early 1970s who listens to David Bowie and Roxy Music 45s and dreams of a way out.

Pop music, he thinks, is his only means of escape from this depressing street, the cramped, semi-detached homes and the general misery of the culture around him. But what he will come to learn -- and here's our biggest heartbreaker of all -- is that the real oppression in his life comes from within.

Written by Matt Greenhalgh (who adapted the 1995 memoir "Touching From a Distance," by Curtis's widow, Deborah), it's such an understated, spare account, it's almost spiritual. We're obliged to fill in the blanks ourselves, as we do when intoning religious liturgies. And as we move toward the inevitable conclusion -- the one we know will stop us cold -- we realize how important it is to enjoy the movie's blessings on the way.

There is the haunting quality of Riley's performance, his unblinking stare and the robotic motion of his onstage dance, as if he's a doll animated only by music. Even more poignant is Samantha Morton as Deborah, who feels the emotions we wish Ian could. We admire the way she stands by him despite such terrible treatment. She can see happiness around the corner. Ian, it seems, can only catch glimpses of it through the heartfelt songs he writes, such as "Love Will Tear Us Apart." As he reaches for and misses that bliss in his personal life, we appreciate -- with the reverberance of a guitar power chord -- what a precious commodity it truly is.

That the movie was filmed in black and white is more than postmodern affectation. It gives us that pure sense of long ago. And besides, it's the color, or non-color, of the only available footage of Joy Division. By watching black and white, we also think of the color -- and, by extension, the happiness -- that was forever so out of reach.

The real Curtis was on the verge of his first American tour when he died. His wife was devoted to him. But then, so was a beautiful Belgian journalist named Annik. And then there were the epileptic fits that came at the worst times, often in mid-performance. And the terrible side effects of his anti-epilepsy medication. And the overwhelming feeling (which he mentioned to many) that the bliss he sought from creating pop music was lost in the throes of pressure to succeed. (Ironically, his death begat success for the remaining band members, who went on to create New Order, one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s.)

According to her memoir, Deborah found him on the morning of May 18, 1980, with the kitchen clothesline tied around his neck. His head was down, knees on the floor, hands resting on the washing machine. Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" was still revolving on their turntable.

In the movie, however, we only hear Deborah's scream from inside the house. As directed by Anton Corbijn, a former rock photographer who knew and shot many images of Curtis, "Control" applies itself so directly to the facts and circumstances of the singer-songwriter's life before that moment, it feels as though we're watching a documentary whydunit.

Fully aware of Curtis's passing, we parse every moment for clues to explain the mystery of why he took his life. And as we realize, increasingly, what great potential lay before him, the dark delicacy of his poetry and the love that surrounded him if only he would pull himself together, we understand what classic tragedy is about -- the greatness that could have been.

Ultimately, the movie isn't about what Ian Curtis did as a rock star. It's what he didn't do as a human being.

Control (121 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity and brief sexual content.

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