February 19, 2008
Joy Division, 2007
Grant Gee frames the documentary of seminal band Joy Division as a city symphony that mirrors Manchester's revitalization - a convergence of musicians and friends coming of age during the city's decline from its heights as the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution, as equally marked by the rebellious angst of a vibrant punk music scene and the groundbreaking modernist fiction of writers such as William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, as they were by the constant flux of their grim environment under the repressive conservatism of the Tory party government headed by Margaret Thatcher (a figurative social institutionalization that, as Peter Hook suggests, was reflected in the area's wide-scale construction of high-density housing to replace war-era ruins, as well as dilapidated houses that fell to neglect with the economic downturn). For local artists, this environment of institutionalization and decay, mass production and commodification would shape the hard edged, ambient (and often, electronically tinged) industrial sound of Factory Records, a homegrown, independent record label founded by charismatic television personality Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus, and by the creative team of record producer Martin Hannett and graphic artist Peter Saville, that intrinsically captured the pulse of the city's deprivation, chaos, and angst. Composed of archival and home video performance footage, written annotations from Ian Curtis's wife, Deborah, and assorted, talking head interviews with former band members (Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Peter Hook), Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, industry critics, as well as Curtis's then-mistress, Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, Gee's articulate and understated approach to charting the trajectory of the band and its troubled lead singer serves to demythologize Curtis's enigmatic persona - from the band's inauspicious origins as an imitative, controversy-courting punk band, to an early photo shoot with rock photographer Anton Corbijn that would provide the group's iconic images, to the critical and commercial success of their first album, Unknown Pleasures, to the stress of Curtis's separation from his young family caused by the demands of touring and international fame that would lead to his increasingly violent bouts of epileptic seizures. Gee's astute incorporation of overlapping images, layering, and stitching (especially between Curtis's subdued television performances and his more spastic, autonomic trances during live shows) creates a sense of continuum that paradoxically underscores the film's themes of transformation and passage, even as it presents Curtis's death as a momentary, tragic act of human frailty, crystallizing an ephemeral moment when music captured the emotional landscape of an anonymous and disposable city and rehabilitated its wounded soul.