Known Pleasures: Re-Representing Ian Curtis in 'Control'

Updated on January 21, 2019
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Andy is a film scholar and obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analyzing the music biopic genre.

From the times of the classical composers to modern pop stars, it has not been an unusual thing for a musician to be placed on a pedestal. Some musicians have even achieved a level of acclaim that grants their life-story to be re-told through cinema. The music biopic is often in cinematic production, whether they be considerably large budget such as the most recent take on the life of Queen front-man Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), or on a more independently smaller scale such as Anton Corbijn’s depiction of the life of Joy Division front-man Ian Curtis in his film Control (2007). A crucial part of the production of these films is casting an actor who is capable of using their own body and voice to mimic the original aesthetic of the subjected music idol. Michael Atkinson argues that this ‘honourable and brave practice of recreating an artist’s vocal achievements anew musters an aesthetic Catch-22’ (1995:28). Given this perspective, this article will analyze how Control has re-represented Ian Curtis for the screen.

The performances in music biopics are described as re-representations as they are essentially depicting something that has already been represented through media texts such as live televised performances, early era music video, published photography, and published biography. Jonathan Romney and Adrian Wooten argue that these performances are ‘a deferred experience, [they are] not live but recorded, [essentially] telling you what you’d missed by not being there’ (1995:4). The critical purpose behind a music biopic is to reinstate the reasons behind the subject’s popularity, essentially highlighting the signature characteristics which separate them from other music performers.

Re-representing a famous person for cinema bares several complications. Marshall and Kongsgaard argue that ‘[t]hings become more complicated when the actor is playing a “real person” because the actor and the subject become drawn together in public consciousness, with information about one inflecting public understanding of the other’ (2012:357). The key issue within this is that an overbearing presence of the actor may break the illusion of their morphing into the image of the subject. In essence, it is difficult for an actor to create the illusion that they are the walking talking embodiment of the famous individual.

Furthermore, in regards to the impersonation of historical subjects in cinema Jean-Louis Comolli analyses that,

[i]f the imaginary person, even in a historical fiction, has no other body than that of the actor playing him, the historical character, filmed, has at least two bodies, that of the imagery and that of the actor who represents him for us. There are at least two bodies in competition, one body too much. (1978:44)

Therefore there is an arguable strength for an aspiring music biopic filmmaker to cast an upcoming actor as a music icon rather than an already established movie star. With this option there is not necessarily a public consensus surrounding the actor's image, therefore making an imitation more immersive as the body of the actor draws much less attention to the foregrounded body of the subject. This can be argued for the casting choice of Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control, as apart from a handful of television film roles, Control essentially provided a breakthrough for Riley as an actor.

Before analyzing examples of how Riley’s image is dissolved into his re-representation of Curtis, it is crucial to analyze the presence of the director of Control, Anton Corbijn. As well as being an acclaimed music photographer, as a filmmaker, Corbijn’s filmography is dominated by music video as he was granted the role of creative director for the visual output of the bands: U2 and Depeche Mode. Corbijn’s artistic link to the life of Ian Curtis can be found not only with his photography but more significantly in his direction of the music video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”. A predominant amount of the visual aesthetic of this video is adopted in the mise-en-scéne of Control, in particular, the monochromatic colour palette in conjunction with the chiaroscuro lighting used on the cinematography of Curtis’ performance. These techniques highlight the conflicting nature of the music icon’s mythologized enigmatic stage presence and the personal trials of his private life.

As well as influencing the film aesthetically, the peculiar images Corbijn presented in his video for “Atmosphere” amplified the lyrics of the song to sanctify Curtis and redefine the song as his elegy (Caitlin Shaw, 2014: 172). According to Andrew Goodwin,‘[a]mplification occurs when the video introduces new meanings that do not conflict with the lyrics but add layers of meaning’ (1992:87). “Atmosphere” was not Curtis’ published suicide note, however, the song is often associated with his death because of Corbijn’s video. This is the reason why the song is played after the suicide scene not only in Control but also in another film 24 Hour Party People (2002).

In an attempt to create a fully diegetic re-representation of Joy Division’s live aesthetic, Corbijn has his cast members of the band to use their own musical ability to re-record the band’s music. The low played bass licks of Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), the statically distorted guitar riffs of Bernard Sumner, and the rapid drum beats of Steve Morris (Harry Treadway) are all re-represented through this talented cast. However, the core of Joy Divisions live aesthetic is resonated through its enigmatic frontman; Ian Curtis. Therefore there is much more of an emphasis on Riley’s position to accurately re-representing this iconic style of performance.

Due to an extreme rarity of documented footage representing Curtis’s persona offstage, Riley was given a fair amount of creative freedom in the depiction of the subject’s private image. However, the same cannot be said for Riley’s re-representation of Curtis’s idiosyncratic stage image. Although there are only a few televised Joy Division performances, these documentations are treated with great value in Control as they contributed to the construction of the life aesthetic that music culture associates with the band. These live performances are condensed into a singular filmic performance of the band’s song “Transmission”. This scene adopts the same mise-en-scéne of a live television performance and even re-enacts the same dialogue presented by Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) in his introduction of the band to a large regional audience. To live-up to spectator expectation, Riley uses his body to imitate Curtis’ renowned yet peculiar stage movement. A movement which at first is confined and limited to an awkward sway or jitter, but as the music progresses this transforms into a manic array of spastic dancing, leaving Curtis wide-eyed and dowsed in sweat.

As well as using his body, Riley also uses his own voice to emulate the bass-baritone demeanor of Curtis’ vocal performances. Catlin Shaw analyses that, ‘Riley speaks the lyrics rather than singing them, emphasizing their significance over the music likening them to poetry… the spoken lyrics are used throughout the film to comment on pivotal events in Curtis’ life, reducing their significance to his personal trials’ (2014:172). This presents another example of Corbijn amplifying the lyrics of Joy Division’s songs to match the specific narrative he presents through his visuals. For example, similar to the function of “Atmosphere” with Curtis’ death, the performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is used to amplify the narrative conflict of Curtis’ love affair. As it is the band’s most famous track, the song ‘is given a prominent position in the film, overlaid on to a scene of Deborah Curtis finding the phone number of Ian’s lover. Thus the song is presented as the key insight into the domestic tensions that are the structuring narrative of the film’ (Marshall and Kongsgaard, 2012: 351). This scene at first uses the original recording of the song as a non-diegetic narration of the scene but is then soon transposed into a performance of the casts’ re-recording of the song.

In conclusion, a British rock biopic like Control shows that with the right casting, direction, and treatment of source music, an immersive morphing of the actor into the subject can be produced through these conventional performance scenes. Making it easier for a spectator to ‘actively fool themselves’ (Comolli, 1979: 46) into believing that they are experiencing the live aesthetic of their music icon.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Michael, 1995, “Long Black Limousines: Pop Biopics’, in, Romney, Jonathan, and Wooten, Adrian (eds), Celluloid Jukebox. London: BFI pp.20-31.

Comolli, Jean-Louis, 1978, ‘Historical Fiction: A Body Too Much’, in, Screen, Vol.19

Goodwin, Andrew, 1992, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marshall, Lee, Konsgaard, Isabel, 2012, “Representing Popular Music Stardom on Screen: The Popular Music Biopic.” Celebrity Studies, 3:3, pp.346-361

Romney, Jonathan, and Wooten, Adrian (eds), Celluloid Jukebox. London: BF

Shaw, Caitlin, 2014,’Re-thinking History Through Cinema’, in, Mee, Laura, and Walker, Johnny, 2014, Cinema, Television and History: New Approaches. London: Routledge

© 2019 Andy Sciambarella


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