Saturday, June 21, 2008

Joy Division

Arriving as a timely bookend to the recent DVD release of Control, this new documentary from filmmaker Grant Gee tracks the history of Joy Division, its enigmatic lead singer Ian Curtis, as well as their Manchester heartland. Featuring a gripping assortment of historical footage as well as new interviews with the surviving members and associates of the band, it’s absolutely essential viewing for longtime fans of the band as well as new curiosity seekers. Thanks to its expert craftsmanship and peripheral focus on the macro socioeconomic conditions of the Manchester community, even non-music fans will find much to enjoy here.

I’ll admit it: I own the original Joy Division albums on vinyl, but I never really got the band. After a few cursory spins in my youth, I shelved the albums in favor of the much more accessible New Order and never looked back…until now. There’s always been a mysterious aura (stigma?) about the band due to the untimely suicide of Curtis, as well as their haunting but impersonal album covers and scant video footage, marking them as an oddly faceless entity removed from the mass media explosion of the nascent music video era. Gee’s documentary succeeds by lifting the veil on the band, delivering in-depth information and footage previously unknown to all but the most devout of fans. In return, it grants cursory fans like me an entirely new appreciation for the band, helping me to finally “get it”.

Gee tracks the formation and rise of the band in their hardscrabble Manchester community in the mid-late ‘70s, a place portrayed as a blighted concrete wasteland of dashed economic dreams. He culls from the scant video footage of the band to deliver crucial and enlightening performances, at the same time offering a great comparison point to similar re-enacted scenes in Control. His best work is in the insightful new interviews he coaxed from the three surviving members of the band, along with the recently deceased Tony Wilson, the founder of their Factory Records label as well as an influential Manchester tv host of the time. Their combined recollections of Curtis and the band’s ascent paint a vivid picture of the band’s inner workings as well as the larger music scene and economic realities of the era. Other associates are interviewed too, including original band photographer and Control director Anton Corbijn, but the band members and Wilson deliver the best material.

The DVD also includes the band’s “Transmission” music video, as well as over 75 minutes of additional interviews omitted from the documentary. The extra footage isn’t essential, but it does offer an array of anecdotes that are worthwhile for viewers seeking added insight. While Control is more interested in Curtis, Joy Division pulls back the lens to capture the full band as well as their hometown, offering a layered and wholly enlightening look at this influential band and its era.

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