Review: Joy Division

Joy Division (93 mins, 15) Directed by Grant Gee; featuring Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Tony Wilson, Anton Corbijn, Annik Honoré

Joy Division (93 mins, 15) Directed by Grant Gee; featuring Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Tony Wilson, Anton Corbijn, Annik Honoré

The music of my mildly rebellious adolescence in the postwar years was traditional jazz which my parents thought cacophonous and its bearded, sideburned exponents bad role models. The recent deaths of George Melly and Humphrey Lyttelton, two of my heroes then, affected me deeply. Rock'n'roll, which arrived here during my early twenties, didn't touch me in the same way, though I did see Blackboard Jungle two days running just to hear Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock' again.

Punk impinged on me scarcely at all. The Manchester music scene of the late 1970s and the early death of Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis caused slight blips on my mental radar but never landed in my mind. I have, however, been made aware of what was happening then and why it was important through three remarkable and complementary movies, each very different in character.

This first is 24 Hour Party People (2002), Michael Winterbottom's biographical fantasia of the Cambridge-educated Granada producer Tony Wilson, a colourful, posturing figure of immense charm (played by Steve Coogan) who helped create the Manchester music scene by discovering new groups, putting bands on TV, opening clubs and starting his own record label. His greatest coup was finding the quartet of local working-class kids who called themselves Joy Division and one of the chief episodes in the film is the suicide by hanging of Ian Curtis after having downed a bottle of scotch while watching Werner Herzog's depressing Stroszek on TV.

The second film is Control, last year's austere black-and-white biopic of Curtis by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn who had hung out with Joy Division and taken celebrated pictures of them. It's as dour as 24 Hour Party People is exuberant, has a memorable, downbeat performance from Sam Riley as Curtis and paints a grim picture of northern life. The movie was produced by Tony Wilson and Curtis's widow Deborah, who was played by Samantha Morton.

The third film, the excellent documentary Joy Division, scripted by Jon Savage and directed by Grant Gee, steers a balanced course between the two earlier ones and is an informative, enlightening study of the group. It's an imaginatively assembled compilation of TV clips, newsreel footage, pictures of Manchester now and then and new interviews.

The interviewees include the three surviving members of the group, now in their fifties (guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, drummer Stephen Morris), Tony Wilson (who died last August), Anton Corbijn, and Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, with whom Curtis was having a serious affair, but not Deborah Curtis, though she's often quoted.

The movie begins with a characteristically big statement from Wilson to the effect that Manchester created the Industrial Revolution with all its grandeur and squalor, while in the desperate post-industrial world, Joy Division renewed the formidable spirit of the city through their music. The notion of the centrality of Manchester is closely pursued by Gee who is by profession a geography teacher with a particular interest in the urban landscape.

The three surviving members of Joy Division see the roots of the band in the hopeless prospect of dead-end jobs, unemployment and petty crime which their music helped them confront and escape from. One of them speaks of the terraced houses being pulled down to be replaced by concrete estates which decayed and were themselves demolished, while the grand Victorian buildings and statues of great men looked on and survived.

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 Curtis took his life. Wilson once compared the Sex Pistols' concert to the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station and Hook and Sumner, who were there (as too, unknown to them then, were Ian and Deborah), thought it was like a car crash. 'We can do that,' they thought, and after several changes of name they became Joy Division. Someone, Wilson I think, says in the film that 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. It has the hallucinatory sci-fi feeling of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville

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 have to admit, however, to a little queasiness about the band's names. To have first chosen Joy Division, the Nazi euphemism for the brothels staffed with concentration- camp inmates for the use of guards and German soldiers, and to have followed this with New Order, Hitler's term for the Nazi reorganisation of Europe, is a bit much, even if you agree with Tony Wilson that it's all postmodernist irony.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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