In 1973, when we first encounter him, Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) is a lanky schoolboy in Macclesfield, a red-brick English town outside of Manchester, with intense but not unusual interests. Apart from cigarettes and his best friend's girlfriend (whom he will shortly marry), these are mainly musical and literary. In his debut film, "Control," about the last seven years of Curtis' life, Anton Corbijn notes some of the figures in the young man's personal canon -- the expected protopunk culture heroes (David Bowie, Lou Reed, J.G. Ballard), yes, but also William Wordsworth, whose "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" Curtis quotes from memory.
Of course, from its very first frame, "Control" is shadowed by intimations of its main character's imminent mortality. Curtis, the lead singer in Joy Division, the great post-punk Manchester quartet, committed suicide in 1980, just before the band was to embark on its first American tour. He was 23, and in the years since his death he has become a canonical figure in his own right. Even as Joy Division's austere, brooding songs -- "Love Will Tear Us Apart," "Isolation," "She's Lost Control" -- have continued to influence musicians from all corners of the musical cosmos, they have lost very little of their glum, haunting power.
The challenge facing Matt Greenhalgh, the screenwriter, and Corbijn, a celebrity photographer who took pictures of the real Joy Division a few months before Curtis died, is how to tell this story of great promise and early death without turning it into yet another exercise in pop martyrology. How, in other words, to take account of Curtis' artistic life and its premature end without treating them as simple cause and effect. The worst and most common failing in movies of this kind -- biographies of artists, musicians in particular -- is that they turn creativity into a symptom and fate into pathology. One of the great virtues of "Control" is that it does not fall into this trap. Where it might have been literal-minded and sentimental, it is instead enigmatic and moving, much in the manner of Joy Division's best songs.
You hear a lot of these on the soundtrack, flawlessly performed by Riley and the other members of the cast (Joe Anderson on bass, James Anthony Pearson on guitar and Harry Treadaway as the wisecracking drummer) who turned themselves into an uncannily persuasive tribute band. (Just how good they are may not become fully apparent until you hear the real Joy Division's version of "Atmosphere" over the end credits.)
Joy Division's two albums were artifacts of their time that became permanent fixtures in the pop universe, available to any listener with a good reason to want a few minutes of voluptuous bad feeling. In tracing them back to their origins, Corbijn resists the temptation to pile on the evocative period details or to wallow in nostalgia for the early days of the Manchester scene. Shot in a pale, Nouvelle Vague black-and-white palette, "Control" manages to be both stylized and straightforward, avoiding overstatement even as it generates considerable intensity.
Riley, hollow-eyed and gentle-looking, is crucial to the film's effectiveness. Since Curtis is known more by his deep, plangent voice than by his face or his physical presence, Riley does not labor under the burden of mimicry, like the recent portrayers of more famous singers like Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. His performance is quiet, charismatic and a little opaque, in keeping with the movie's careful, detached approach to its subject.
Samantha Morton, playing Curtis' wife, Deborah (on whose 1995 memoir, "Touching From a Distance," the film is based), provides a necessary measure of hurt and warmth, reminding the audience that Ian Curtis' great subject as a writer was heartbreak.
But Corbijn and Greenhalgh, to their credit, do not presume to probe the depths of Curtis' psychology, or to find the hidden emotional sources of his songs. Instead their film shows, plainly and sufficiently, how those songs were made. They were written down in a notebook, practiced with the rest of the band and then performed in front of ever larger and more ecstatic audiences.
But the group's progress -- it wins the favor of the Manchester music guru Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) and acquires an aggressive manager in the person of Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) -- is accompanied by increasing complication and strain in Curtis' personal life. While still a teenager, he marries Deborah and becomes a father just as Joy Division is recording its first album. He begins to suffer from epileptic seizures and wories that the epilepsy medicine will affect his moods and his mind. He also falls for a Belgian journalist named Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), and love tears him apart, again.
"Control" tells a sad story that is also a chronicle of success, and it declines to find an easy moral either in Joy Division's rapid rise or in its lead singer's early death. These are things that happened, both on the intimate stage of individual life and in the larger arena of popular culture. Corbijn, no doubt aware of what this movie will mean to devotees of post-punk melancholy, sticks to the human dimensions of the narrative rather than turning out yet another show business fable. You don't have to know anything about Joy Division to grasp the mysterious sorrow at its heart.