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The story of Ian Curtis and Joy Division has been told twice on film so far, once as a facet of Michael Winterbottom's 24-Hour Party People and then again as the full subject of Anton Corbijn's Control. In conjunction with the latter film, the surviving members of the band--now collectively known as New Order--took the opportunity to tell the story themselves for the first time ever, working with pioneering music documentary director Grant Gee (best known for the influential Radiohead film Meeting People is Easy). While the late singer Curtis was the central focus of the fictional accounts, the simply titled Joy Division attempts to give everyone equal time, with the greatest importance placed on the music itself.
Told in a straightforward chronological fashion, Joy Division is anything but a straightforward piece of film. The band, which operated in the late '70s following the punk explosion in England, always placed as much importance on the design of their visual presentation as they did the tunes, including some revolutionary album packaging with graphic artist Peter Saville. Taking his cue from these endeavors, Gee creates an interaction of sound, image, and text to submerge the viewer in the feeling of Joy Division fandom. Lyrics appear on screen, as do choice words from the interview subjects. The absent characters of the story show up in their own unique fashion--Deborah Curtis, Ian's wife and the author of the book upon which Control was based, is only represented by quotes, whereas the band's late manger, Rob Gretton, is viewed through snapshots of his meticulous notebooks. Likewise, the producer of the Joy Division records, the deceased Martin Hannett, appropriately is represented by old audio, in the form of interviews.
As for the people who do appear on screen, almost everyone who was there sits down for Gee's camera, including Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson, who passed away last summer, likely not long after completing this project. Ian's bandmates, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris, get the most screen time, but Gee also features Saville, Corbijn, photographer Kevin Cummins, Ian's mistress Annik Honore, as well as friends and fans, theorists and admirers, including fellow musicians Pete Shelley (the Buzzcocks), Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire), and Genesis P. Orridge (Psychic TV).
Gee employs vintage photographs to illustrate the talking heads, as well as some remarkable vintage footage of the band, from bootleg videos of their early gigs to legitimate television appearances and music videos. He also puts together amateur recordings of the 1976 Sex Pistols concert in Manchester that launched a whole slew of bands in the city, Joy Division among them. Manchester is a constant presence in the Joy Division story, its rise and fall as an urban environment being locked in step with the success of its musicians. Gee goes to various places that were important in the Joy Division history, marking each one that is now gone, calling them "Things That Aren't There." People don't just move on, places do, too.
Joy Division contains a compelling story, hence its many retellings. There is something magical about how the great bands come together, how the combination of people produces something so unique and remarkable, it could not have emerged any other way. This is why it's so important that the music is part of the narrative, and why so many gray market, unauthorized documentaries fail. What good is it to talk about the impact of a band if the actual sound of the band can't be heard? So, thankfully, wonderfully, Gee's film is chock full of Joy Division's music. And not just the studio cuts, but demos and live performances, even audio of John Peel playing "Atmosphere" at the wrong speed and, staggeringly, the tape of Bernard Sumner engaging in retro hypno therapy with Ian Curtis! Fittingly, following Ian's suicide, the music stops, and most of the final moments are played in silence with only the remembrances of the people who were there to fill the void. The music only returns as life moves forward again.
Even if you think you've heard it all before, forget it. You really want to hear it all again. Joy Division is a fantastic documentary about one of our most important bands. The voice that emerged from Manchester, the sound that rumbled up from its concrete streets, can never be replicated. That's why a film like this is so great, because it reminds us why the music endures and why Joy Division lives on.
The matted widescreen transfer on the Joy Division DVD is immaculate. I saw no problems or inconsistencies, even with a picture that wildly varies in terms of style and technique. The image is sharp and the blacks run deep.
I rarely notice DVD menus anymore, but this one has a strikingly sophisticated interface, designed in stark black-and-white and keeping with the Pete Saville aesthetic.
The Dolby 5.1 mix is excellent, with really strong levels allowing the music to come alive when it takes over, and then finding a balance when it has to share the speakers with dialogue.
There are options of English Closed Captioning and Spanish subtitles.
A performance of "Transmission" recorded for the TV show "Something Else" in 1979, snippets of which are seen in the main film, is shown in its entirety in the bonus section. There are also over 75-minutes of excerpts from the various interviews, including a few from commentators who weren't in the movie (such as Rob Gretton's widow), broken up into easily digested chunks, which you can play all at once or drop in and pick up the stream at any point. The chapters are spread over four menus, with titles to indicate what they are about. The interviews feature more anecdotes about the band, Manchester, and punk, including insight into the inspiration for some of Joy Division's songs, the post-Ian addition of Gillian Gilbert, and even more from Rob Gretton's notebooks.
Joy Division comes in a regular plastic DVD case with a single-sheet paper insert. It has printing on one side advertising this DVD as well as the new release of Control; the other side is blank. A trailer for Control, as well as one for the music-themed I'm Not There, plays as the DVD loads.
At the conclusion of Grant Gee's Joy Division, one of the commentators expresses his belief that the band was one of the last true stories of the history of music, a revolutionary force that came out of nowhere, was unaware of the market conditions that should have prevented them from being successful, and then ended with as much force as they began. The tragic story of Ian Curtis and his struggles has been covered in other arenas, but at long last the whole picture has been painted, featuring all of the people who were there and generous helpings of the music the four lads created. Told with care and craft, Joy Division is Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.