I stumbled upon a gem of a documentary on Joy Division last week, and holy wow was I captivated. Yes, Joy Division is possibly my favorite band of all time (more on that in a separate post), but my reasons for loving the documentary move beyond my love for the band’s music. I am a big fan of the well made rock documentary, and Joy Division is really great documentary filmmaking. A well-done rock documentary shows artistic process, the tensions within creativity, and cultural history while also standing on its own as a piece of art, the best of which actually reflect the subject they’re documenting (see Patti Smith’s Dream of Life for a prime example of this effect).
Joy Division (written by music critic Jon Savage and directed by rock documentary filmmaker Grant Gee) accomplishes all of this. It’s an incredible homage to and fascinating history of the band Joy Division and namely its visionary leader Ian Curtis, but it’s also one hell of an excellent piece of documentary filmmaking. It splices together insightful interview material with surviving band members (now New Order), legendary photographer Anton Corbijn, and a whole range of people involved in the production of Joy Division, including album cover artist Peter Saville and archival material with John Peel. The documentary beautifully intersects the riveting interview material with archival photos, live concert footage, shots of Manchester then and now, and gorgeous art films that evoke the "atmosphere" of the geography and time as well as the Joy Division aesthetic.
The movie opens with gritty archival film material of Manchester in the 1970s, and there is no denying the industrial class origins of the band. Gray skies clotted with pollution from factories and the dismal haze of labor hang over everything. Children play in desolate fields of debris, their landscape punctuated by smoke stacks. In talking about the working class origins of the band, one of the band members says humorously, “I mean, I don’t think I saw an actual tree until I was sixteen or something.” Throughout the documentary, the Manchester origins of the band are spliced into the narrative through art films, archival footage, and contemporary views of the city. We learn about how Joy Division changed the whole “atmosphere” of Manchester and created a whole music and cultural movement in a place that was suffocating with desperation and nihilism. The film never once loses the band’s connection to class.
We learn of Ian Curtis’s obsession with literature, poetry and philosophy and how he used these things in his songs to articulate things he felt intensely and to express things that reached beyond the concrete world but also immediately reflected Curtis’s class environment. Through the interview material, we also understand that the tension between Curtis’s class, his self-taught book knowledge, and his impulse to create and express his intense vision was almost unbearable. He was a true visionary artist who spent his days working at the unemployment office helping the desperately unemployed of Manchester try to find jobs. We learn the origins of the song “She's Lost Control.” The song was inspired by a woman who Curtis was helping find a job. She suddenly dropped to the floor in a convulsive epileptic fit and died shortly after. Ian Curtis was profoundly affected by this experience, and of course the tragedy is that he himself would develop epilepsy shortly thereafter. This song is a classic example of how the band, and particularly Curtis, was able to transcend boundaries and to occupy a place where their music evokes an otherworldly aesthetic while also being grounded firmly in the hardcore working class reality of industrial England.
The film also provides tons of fascinating material on the origins of the band and how it pushed the sound and sentiment of punk into a whole new realm (the combination of rock, dance, philosophy and aesthetics). One person mentions that Joy Division created a “revolution of not differentiating between dance and rock.” Another states, “Joy Division changed the sentiment behind punk from ‘fuck you’ to ‘we’re fucked’.” But of course Joy Division moves far beyond the simple sentiment of “we’re fucked.” In a way their songs are all about both embracing and transcending our “we’re fucked-ness” through music and poetry.
The film does a great job of showing the production of the music – the making, mixing, and pressing of the songs. We learn how Joy Division accidentally invented its signature drum sound and the problems with reproducing the sound on vinyl. We learned about how they practiced in old abandoned factories, often burning discarded industrial debris to keep warm in winter. In one particularly interesting scene where the band talks about making the song “Digital,” they talk about how Ian Curtis used his voice like digital technology (“day in/day out” – “on/off”). The technical scenes are spliced with footage of vintage recording technology – from turntables, to amplifiers, to old mixing boards. I was particularly fascinated by the part where artist Peter Saville talks about the creation of the infamous album cover for Unknown Pleasures. There is also some incredibly great material where Anton Corbijn talks about photographing the band and the “accidental” way he stumbled upon his famous shot of the band standing on the bridge in the cold.
The live concert footage is integrated in perfect rhythm to continually bring us back to what it was Joy Division was doing with their sound and to allow us to witness Ian Cutis’s incredible aura as he performed on stage. We are constantly asked to bear witness to the power of this visionary artist, as he rolls his eyes, dances in his signature jerky rhythm and unleashes a turbulent and beautiful storm of sound and words from the depth of his soul. When the film does eventually get to the suicide, it is done with incredible intimacy and humanity. As the different band members and people in Curtis’ life recount his death, we experience the gamut of emotions that comes with a suicide – the grief, shock, anger, regret, pain, and loss. One member recalls his disconnection, how he suppressed his feelings to the point that he didn’t see Ian’s body before he was buried, and the regret and sadness are barely contained in his rigid exterior as he tries so hard not to let his emotions leak.
The movie beautifully segues from reflections on Ian’s death to what has happened to the legacy of the band. The transition comes in a sequence where live footage of Joy Division overlaps live concert footage of New Order playing a Joy Division song (something they very rarely do), and the legacy becomes brilliantly solid in the melding of these two concerts overlapping each other. There are some moments of self-reflection where the surviving band members question “the merchandising of memories” (what a great phrase) which is one of the reasons why New Order does not play Joy Division songs. But I guess in a way, this documentary itself is marketing the memories of Joy Division, but I’m glad it is. It is done with incredible beauty and insight.
The movie ends with a gorgeous melancholic sequence in which “Atmosphere” plays while historical footage of Manchester is spliced with contemporary footage of the city, providing a historic continuum of the Joy Division sound, a sound, as we learn from this documentary, that truly is timeless, that is more than just music, that is transcendent, revolutionary, and beautiful. This little documentary does that sound justice.
Also, if this interests you, I enthusiastically suggest that you see photographer Anton Corbijn’s feature film Control, an absolutely incredible movie about Joy Division which made my Top Ten list when it came out.