Joy Division live again in solid documentary

Tue Sep 11, 2007 6:02pm EDT

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - Arriving at the best possible moment, this documentary about groundbreaking postpunk band Joy Division is playing festivals alongside "Control," music-video master Anton Corbijn's well-received feature on the band. A solid, well-presented history of the English group's brief career, "Joy Division" has appeal for music buffs but could get mileage in theaters from a smart coordination with the feature film's release.

Placing a straightforward, chronological account of the band's existence in the context of Manchester, a city whose re-emergence from post-industrial gloom is credited to the pop music explosion Joy Division helped start, the docu contains plenty of testimony from all the surviving key musical players. (Singer Ian Curtis hanged himself in 1980; producer Martin Hannett, credited with inventing much of the group's distinctive sound, died in 1991.) Happily, TV host-turned-music entrepreneur Tony Wilson, who died last month, is among the interviewees. (Wilson was the colorful subject of Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People," which would make a fan-pleasing triple feature with "Joy Division" and "Control.")

Veteran music critic Jon Savage wrote the film, which makes sure to recount seminal moments like the 1976 Sex Pistols show that inspired so many bands, but it's group member Bernard Sumner who makes the most eloquent cultural observation about the shift from in-your-face Pistols-style punk to the more introspective music Joy Division helped instigate: "Sooner or later somebody was going to want to say more than 'f--- you' . . . to say 'I'm f---ed.' "

A good assortment of vintage performance clips chart the quick evolution of Joy Division's style, which was not only a matter of sound but also of Curtis' spasmlike movements at the microphone, a dance that evoked possession by malevolent spirits and foreshadowed the epilepsy that struck the singer suddenly, near the end of his life. As one who witnessed those shows puts it, the onstage surrender was "like he sacrificed something for you" in order to follow his muse.

Little of this material will be news to devoted followers of the band, though even they might be interested to know that Sumner never liked listening to their debut album "Unknown Pleasures" and that Peter Saville, who designed that iconic record sleeve, hadn't even listened to the music. For the rest of the audience, just the right amount of narrative detail, archive footage and analysis is included.

Director Grant Gee, known for the Radiohead film "Meeting People Is Easy," does little out of the ordinary here, outside of the appealing way he accompanies audio-only archive material with cleverly stylized waveforms. For a group whose influence had so much to do with the unintuitive manipulation of familiar sounds, that's a knowing touch.

Director/director of photography: Grant Gee; Writer: Jon Savage; Producers: Tom Astor, Tom Atencio, Jacqui Edenbrow; Music: Jerry Chater, Rashad Omar; Editor: Jerry Chater.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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