After two features dramatizing the peripheral aspects of Manchester’s greatest rock band, the stylish doc “Joy Division” gets to the heart of the matter. Pic takes full measure of the extraordinary unit’s music and its unlikely rise to instant-legend status, and has an eye for detail many similar docs simply lack. Theatrical interest in the wake of Anton Corbijn’s “Control” will pull in buyers after a strong fest run, and a double DVD of Corbijn’s film and this one seems like a no-brainer.
Grant Gee (as helmer and lenser) and Jon Savage (as writer and consultant) have immersed themselves in all things Joy Division, reflecting an obsession immediately generated by the band in 1978 with their astonishing debut record, “Unknown Pleasures.” Rarely had a group hit with such a responsive bang as this one, timed perfectly after the churning tumult of the mid-’70s punk scene needed a new direction.
Pic opens with the dubious thesis that the band literally brought Manchester, a declining and rotting ghost of its former Industrial Revolution juggernaut self, into the 20th and even 21st centuries. (The music really was that advanced, and that current to contempo ears.) Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” better captured this aspect, but doc’s account of a loosely assembled group of lads who hardly knew how to play guitar and drums is a tribute to Manchester grit and determination.
Lead singer Ian Curtis was a relative latecomer to the group (first dubbed “Warsaw” until the final name, referencing Hitler’s organized brothels, took), but immediately, his impact was profound. All of them — Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Curtis — had been under the spell of the Sex Pistols, and the city’s first punk band, the Buzzcocks, was making a splash. Early tapes played here reveal pathetic imitations of punk, with no indication of the sound that was to come.
Crucially, after early failed gigs, Joy Division returned to their makeshift studio and practiced intensively for more than six months. It was as if a rag-tag group of kids had decided to apply classical musicians’ rigor to what developed into post-punk music. Second key matter, dealt with here at length, is how the band listened to and collaborated with genius engineer-producer Martin Hannett, whom pic properly credits for the echo-y, otherworldly sound of the music.
As “Control” neatly conveys, singer-songwriter Curtis was crucial to the band, just as his declining neurological condition (which led to a series of grand-mal seizures) led to its collapse. New doc is emotionally deeper than Corbijn’s pic in its portrayal, using fine one-on-one interviews to reveal the terrible regrets and guilt that wracked everyone in and near the band about Curtis, the veiled cries for help in his songs and his suicide following a failed attempt.
While “Control” was based on Curtis’ wife Deborah’s memoir, “Touching From a Distance,” “Joy Divisin” features Curtis’ Belgian g.f., the thoughtful and perceptive Annik Honore, and cites Deborah’s text only onscreen. (According to Hook after a Toronto fest screening, Deborah Curtis didn’t want to talk on camera, but gave permission to use her text.)
Devastating ending led to an entirely fresh phase, and doc concludes on an inspiring note, as the surviving trio reformed as New Order and enjoyed a fabulously successful run. Gee’s camera views a revived Manchester as a sort of living legacy from Joy Division.
Matthew Robertson’s system of graphic design can’t be underestimated as a crucial component of pic’s modernism, perfectly in keeping with the design aspects of the band’s label, Factory Records. Along with Savage, researcher Ed Webb-Ingall pulls together an amazing assemblage of ultra-rare audio and visual clips.