Joy Division

Director    Grant Gee
Starring    Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett, Alan Erasmus
Release    TBC (US) 2 MAY (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


8th May 2008

"After those two records, those two works of art, everything else is merchandising the memory." - Peter Saville

The lens of time perverts memory. Now, right now, this very second, we are living in historic times. Across the world, right now, events are happening that will be chronicled in history. But us, we're too busy living, carrying on as normal, digging our way through the day-to-day toil, the oppression of food and housework and commuting. At some point in the future, we'll look back on these halcyon days, these artefacts of what once was, and we'll rely on talking heads and memories and vague recollections to tell us what happened and how.

The documentary is part of our history. Documentary makers are the modern historians. The book can tell us but a fraction of history. Only the people who were there really know. And even then, some of them probably don't know anymore.

And so, Joy Division. A straightforward recounting of a tiny fraction of history between 1977 and 1980, happening almost exclusively in one town, to but a handful of people. Grant Gee, helming his first major music film since 1997's Radiohead's tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy, takes the lens away from the present to events that will, in one hundred years time, be recounted with the same historical gravitas as events of 1908. We will marvel, in 2108, at the antiquated and primitive technology of film and projection and 24fps.

Even now, events we can remember, our childhoods, our growing up, the rubble in the street, the weeks of snow, will be romanticised and turned into a world that never was. And even now, just twenty eight years after the death of Ian Curtis, many of the leading characters in that story - Martin Hannett, Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson - are gone. In what will almost certainly be his epitaph, Tony Wilson appears on screen talking with great flair, but the silent tragedy is that mere months later he too was gone. History is slipping through our fingers: made even six months later, one of this film's central voices would be absent.

Nonetheless, what is Joy Division? In one respect, it's 93 minutes of talking heads and fragments of past film. In another respect, it's a concise, almost breakneck - but thoroughly exhaustive - snapshot of a short 1,000 days. In that time, The Stiff Kittens became Warsaw became Joy Division, they became a group, became artists, became two albums and five singles old. They released a mere handful of songs, and then disappeared. Joy Division became a legend then a memory. The tragedy of this is not just personal - who knows what creative limits Joy Division would have reached had they remained? Imagine if The Smiths' legacy were confined to the end of the final notes of 'Meat Is Murder'. Imagine what great music we would never have heard. This is the tantalising and impossible mystery at the heart of Joy Division, the band.

The main protagonists - the existent bandmates, the label boss, the friends of the time - recall with a fond humanity the brief hours. The late nights in small rooms in pubs and Universities across England and a brief excursion to Europe. Peter Hook offers a rambunctious joviality, Steven Morris a measured introspection, Bernard Sumner shows his often hidden private life. The rest of the cast - known and unknown - names such as Iain Grey, Terry Mason, Lesley Gilbert unknown to all but the most devoted of fans that devour the minutiae - all offer equal and fair, thoroughly human commentary. Breaking a lifetime silence, Annik Honore - Curtis' girlfriend - offers what is, in all probability, her only public statements on the issue.

But let us not forget the compelling point of Joy Division, the thing that makes us remember all of this stuff, when it could so easily be forgotten: the music. The music is central to the film, and unreleased demo and live recordings populate the soundtrack as well as established 'modern classics'. Excerpts of studio chatter and fragments of unheard versions appear at frequent intervals. Clearly, Gee knows his stuff. Live performance is represented by excerpts from the short handful of existing Joy Division films and TV appearances (which, hopefully will appear in full on the inevitable DVD release). Without a doubt, Joy Division covers everything related to the life of the band, and many things you didn't know exist in an illuminating and important investigation.

Aside from the music, the film delves into the aesthete of the art that underpinned the work, the influence of literature on the music, the impact of the visual art, and even colour photography of a band that almost exclusively existed solely in black and white. And then, as the tale reaches its end, the slow revelation of tragedy unfolds with a mundane horror that leaves the viewer bereft with the impact that even now, three decades on, the untimely death of a young man would have on his friends.

Joy Division is undoubtedly a labour of love, made by a filmmaker clearly at ease with, and competent with the craft; capable and respectful of the subject matter, neither trivialising nor overstating the events recounted within. Anyone with even a passing interest in Joy Division should start here and then go further inside their work. Joy Division is the essential counterpoint to Anton Corbijn's Control, a significant addition and illumination of established truths. Simply, if you like Joy Division, you must see this. Mark

More:  Documentary  Music
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