Grant Gee’s documentary Joy Division covers the all-too-brief history of the eponymous post-punk band from Manchester. Joy Division was tragically short-lived, only completing two albums before lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980, but disproportionately influential. Their sound is all over the early U2 albums Boy and October, and Interpol has made a career of emulating Joy Division’s sound.
Gee sets the scene of late 1970s Manchester as a grimy hellhole in which “there’s nothing pretty.” The core members of the band are perversely inspired by a Sex Pistols concert (their review: “shite, a car crash”) to form their own band. Photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn took some of the most memorable portraits of the band. Used to Holland’s health care system, he was shocked to see such poverty in England. He describes Joy Division as undernourished and shivering in their thin coats.
Gee also interviews Peter Saville, the graphic designer that created the remarkably stark album sleeves that were almost as influential as the music itself. Tony Wilson (a colorful character who was the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s fantastic biopic 24 Hour Party People) was an early champion, in between his duties as host of the TV show “So It Goes” and Factory Records impresario. Curtis’ widow Deborah does not seem to have participated, but her side of the story appears in the excellent biopic Control, co-produced by her and directed by Corbijn.
Curtis is described as a regular lad who frequently bought flowers for his wife. In other words, the opposite of punk. But he’s also characterized as “bipolar,” moody and unpredictable even before his epilepsy manifested itself in frequent, dramatic grand mal seizures. His singular stage presence was marked by a peculiar form of dance inspired by his seizures (that he sometimes actually did experience on stage). The necessary drug treatments caused huge mood swings, further compromising his already unsteady mental health. Curtis continued his day job assisting disabled people for the Civil Service even as the band was taking off. In a heartbreaking bit of synchronicity, his classic song “She’s Lost Control” is about an epileptic girl he met though his work.
Grant Gee’s clear expertise is musical documentary. His 1998 film Meeting People is Easy famously captures Radiohead breaking through to mass popularity as their 1998 album OK Computer is universally declared the album of the year. The frank film shows emotionally fragile Thom Yorke almost physically recoiling from fame, but receiving wise counsel from mentor Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Gee also co-directed the excellent 2005 Gorillaz concert film Demon Days Live at the Manchester Opera House, better even than the studio album that preceded it. Both films have permanent spots on the DVD shelf.