A talk with Peter Hook, Mark Greenhalgh and John Robb at the Cornerhouse, Manchester on Friday, October 19, followed by a screening of the Ian Curtis biopic. It could have been three guys locked in music-related conversation in the Gay Traitor, the Hacienda's basement bar named after the spy Anthony Blunt (now seriously expensive apartments). It was, however, the tiny stage of Screen Two of Manchester's premiere arts cinema, the Cornerhouse, and these three had an audience.
One was an unlikely pop star, the second wanted to be one but became a writer, while the third should have been huge, had the perfect look, but never found the success of the first. Ladies and gentlemen, for one night only we are in the presence of Mr. Peter Hook, late of Joy Division and New Order, Mr. Matt Greenhalgh, screenwriter of Control, and Mr. John Robb, the face of Goldblade, and notable scribe on all things that rock and pop.
Peter Hook is the one member of Joy Division who seems most at home in discussing his now legendary past. He already had it dissected in Twenty Four Hour Party People, which Robb refers to as Carry On Manchester. He confesses that the Hacienda flick has left him with a sense of trepidation when entering foreign taxis. It played well across the world, and haunts him just for being from Manchester.
Greenhalgh's screenplay focuses attention on Hook's friend, the late Ian Curtis, his screenplay brought to flickering whites and grays by the respected Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn, a life-long fan, who moved primarily to England to photograph the band. It is a more involved and serious treatment of Hook's part in Manchester's rock pantheon, and in particular the short and turbulent life of their singer and lyricist. The three are here to discuss the past and the film, meandering down whatever turns the conversation takes.
Hook admits, "Joy Division was so easy. We were all in it together. An underestimation of the band is similar to an underestimation of Tony Wilson. With New Order, everything was more difficult, long and drawn out, because Ian wasn't there. He made writing lyrics seem like he'd had a lifetime of suffering and pain. It was all so short-lived, it didn't really leave a trace on our lives, and then we chose to ignore Joy Division and stand on our own two feet. We still carried on as if he was still there, not physically, but around. We were too young to address Ian's suicide."
Pop continues to eat itself with scant respect for the feelings of the living. But then, neither has Hook much such respect; in response to a reverential mention of Liam Gallagher by an audience member, Hook deadpans that you'd find a bus load of wankers like that in most parts of Manchester. He also decries the celebrity, make-it-big aspect of our current pop culture. "It makes it all seem easy. Too easy." You know that with Ian Curtis it wasn't easy, and came from a place most wannabes wouldn't care, nor have the capacity, to recognize.
The crowd is the usual mix of nostalgics. Those who were there and those who would have liked to have been present, the curious, the film buffs, and the inevitable guy at the front with questions that reveal more about his own pseudo-pretensions than any coherent response which they might elicit. Hook treats him with bemused contempt, but this merely proves to be petroleum to his folly. His questions are long-winded and annoying. He even answers his mobile phone as one question is being responded to. He is the one in every crowd.
Hook possesses a wry sense of irony concerning the film, especial disdain being reserved for the American film executive who suggested excitedly that Joy Division reform for the premiere. He also reflects that no matter how iconic things may appear with hindsight of three decades vintage, Joy Division played several gigs at which nobody showed.
He laments that Corbijn stripped Greenhalgh's original script of much of its Englishness, which "made it more international, giving it a wider, but more watered down appeal." He does, however, concede, "You can't play down the emotional impact of the film. He grabbed it by the short and curlies and got it done." It is easy to gauge from such responses that he feels the film is something of a mixed blessing.
He has sympathy for Deborah Curtis, on whose memoir of her husband Greenhalgh and Corbijn based Control. "Anton's perspective is an overview, whilst Debbie's is more personal and involved." He sardonically acknowledges that the film isn't called Control for nothing, and that the only way to be entirely satisfied with it would involve the making of your own.
Matt Greenhalgh reveals that he only really got to grips with Curtis when Anouk, Ian's Belgian lover, gracefully lent him the letters Curtis had written to her. These were haunting and from the heart. Two film treatments were in circulation at one time, but finally Greenhalgh's version made it through to production. He is fair and unassuming about the project and seems genuinely motivated by a desire to grasp whatever truths can be excised from what remains of past moments.
The evening was rambling and a little inconclusive. As soon as the discussion ended, Peter Hook grabbed his coat and exited before the final formalities could be observed. It was billed as a conversation with Matt Greehalgh, but it was more about Peter Hook. He had, after all, been there. Greenhalgh admitted that he hoped this would be his final event relating to the late Ian Curtis, but ghosts tend to linger in the lives of those that reanimate them, especially if that specter is of a fellow Mancunian.
Control is a strange collision between a European filmic sensibility and the dour kitchen sink dramas British cinema specialized in during the 1960s. It gives an evocative, if rather stylized, take on the grubbiness that was Manchester and Macclesfield as punk began to roar. The fact that it is shot exquisitely in black and white almost makes you believe that the past occurred in monochrome. This was the generation that lived in dead men's overcoats. The Seventies may have begun in glitter, but they staggered out in gray.
Ian Curtis comes across as an intense teenager, obsessed with Bowie and poetry. He is a contradiction of contrasts, a working class boy who voted for Thatcher and held down a job in the local benefits office. In this seemingly conventional life, there lurked an intense desire to stand out from the rest. His diagnosis with epilepsy, and the somewhat random efforts of the medical profession to secure the correct combination of pills, steered him further into darkness. Control was rapidly absenting itself from his life.
Corbijn's decision to cast the unknown Sam Riley in the lead role is as brave as it is understandable. He brings a brooding intensity to his portrayal. He looks like Curtis, he can sing like him, and has got his maniacal dancing down to a disturbingly fine art. It is to be commended that the actors portraying the band perform all the songs themselves. It removes that strange sense of air guitar from the proceedings, which normally destroys many rock movies. It also sounds flawlessly authentic. This is a film about music which transcends that particular genre.
As the performance develops, the strands that are unraveling around Curtis conspire and collude. He married young, and though Deborah obviously loved him (she is beautifully underplayed by Samanta Morton), his feelings appear to have fallen to a level of guilt and obligation. As his life became more successful and removed from her existence of motherhood in Macclesfield, it was inevitable that he would find a more alluring shoulder for his many sorrows. This came in the form of a Belgian rock journalist. The two women operate perfectly as externalized symbols of the conflict within Ian Curtis.
Deborah Curtis is not your average rock and roll widow, because she is precisely a perfectly ordinary person whose husband either always was, or gradually became, extraordinary. As Curtis flew between his wife and lover, this unstable individual rendered himself even more so. In the end his solution was suicide at home on the eve of the band's debut American tour. The strange and sad reality of films like this means they re-edit the past and become the current version. Corbijn has in some respects claimed her memories.
The usual cast of Manchester characters translates well beyond their geographical comfort zone. In that respect Corbijn shares something with Curtis. They could both take something rather ordinary and turn it into a statement that reaches out to a wider world. Sadly Ian Curtis, like the late-lamented Kurt Cobain, wasn't one for the pressures of fame, and fans can now refashion their expectations on photographs, pictures and songs. Corbijn has made a romantic film that doesn't avoid reality. Rarely has one sad souls anguish been so beautifully or sympathetically rendered. - Robert Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2008.