Sunday, 24 May 2009

Ian and Deborah and John and Sid

I was a bit ill with the lurgy last week so took a couple of days off work. I’m not one for sick days so was a bit lost for things to do whilst not doing much. Predictably I ended up watching telly. We’ve finally bought an amplifier and some speakers (more tentative steps into the 21st century) so I thought I’d watch a couple of my favourite music related films to see how good they sounded. We’ve been watching Ashes to Ashes, so seeing as my head was already most of the way there I pulled The Filth and the Fury and Control off the shelf for more late seventies / early eighties gloom.

Despite the undeniable importance, impact and influence of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division (the subjects of Filth and the Fury and Control respectively) I’m not a massive fan of either band. There are songs that I like, some that I love, but overall I prefer the music of the bands they became; Public Image Limited and New Order. However there is something about both movies that grabs me every time I watch them.

On first viewing the two films take markedly different approaches to telling the stories of two of Britain’s most spectacularly short-lived bands. Julian Temple’s Filth and the Fury is a deliberately one-sided documentary. Narrated by the band themselves it stands as a counter point to Temple’s previous recounting of the Pistols’ story; the Malcolm McLaren-orchestrated Great Rock and Roll Swindle. That version depicted McLaren as a Fagin-style ringleader of a bunch of artless dodgers that he manipulated to chart and cultural success. As if by way of an apology, Temple has handed the microphone to the four living members (as well as an occasionally lucid Sid Vicious from old footage) and has put together their side of things.

The era is spectacularly brought to life by inspired archive footage of Britain on its knees in the winter of discontent interspersed with dancing and gurning 1970s comedians, cartoons and a recurring role for Laurence Olivier’s grotesque Richard III who clearly had a big impact on a young John Lydon. Aside from the old clips, the band appear only in silhouette, as if to press home that this isn’t a movie about the here and now, but of the innocence of youth, and an era when cultural foundations could be rocked by art alone.

The movie addresses pretty much all of their infamous moments – swearing on the Bill Grundy TV show, getting dropped from two record labels within a year, being banned by fearful local councils across the land, gatecrashing the Queen’s Silver Jubilee party by releasing one the most brilliantly nasty protest songs ever recorded (God Save the Queen), swapping muso Glen Matlock for talentless pin-up boy Vicious and imploding because their energy couldn’t manage the inertia that overcame them. It also relegates McLaren to a laughable bit player in a story he would have us believe he wrote. One suspects the truth lies somewhere in-between but it’s clear from Lydon’s intelligent reflections that he was never anyone’s puppet to be controlled. But whilst we’re on the topic…

Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control. Note bricks looking cool as fuck.

Anton Corbijn portrait of Joy Division

Based on material from widow Deborah Curtis’ book Touching from a Distance, Anton Corbijn’s directorial debut is an exquisite and honestly down to earth retelling of Ian Curtis’ story. When I watched this at the cinema I was overcome by how beautifully the North of England could be represented by someone with the right eye for detail. That’s not to say it is all chimney stacks, factories and ‘eh up lads. ’ More Corbijn brings the same black and white eye he used for U2’s Joshua Tree to smoky pubs, terraced streets, tower blocks, bricks and telephone poles. Having started his career taking black and white shots of Joy Division, it’s like he’s come back to finish the job.

Given Curtis’ posthumous elevation to the role of Patron Saint of Misery by subsequent generations there was every opportunity for this movie to go horribly wrong. Blessedly a combination of respect for the subject matter, involvement of some of the key players (Deborah Curtis and Anthony Wilson both serve as Executive Producers) and some choice casting makes for something far greater than I had even dare hope for.

The two Sams (Riley and Morton as Ian and Deborah) are magnificent. Both fill their respective skins perfectly yet neither ever overacts or is anything less than authentic. Their young love is sweetly believable, their falling apart painfully so. The temptation to fill the movie with shots of Ian staring into space has thankfully been resisted. The mundane tragedy of their story is lightened by a wonderful supporting cast, particularly Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton, Craig Parkinson as Wilson and Alexandra Maria Lara as Ian’s extra-marital love interest, Annik Honoré.

Samantha Morton and Sam Riley

Naturally enough issues of control haunt every frame of the film, principally Ian’s desperate attempts to hold on as everything around him falls apart. Curtis fights for control over his emotions and desires, control over his flailing, failing epileptic body and the medication that he needs, control of his fears of death and in the end his personal time as band mates, fans, girlfriend, wife and daughter all want him to be somewhere he isn’t. Ultimately Corbijn’s view is that Curtis lost control over his own destiny; his only way to get it back being to end his life.

The movie is also clear that Curtis exerted a lot of control over his young wife, often leaving her to clean up his personal mess alone. His thoughtless suicide letter to his wife after a failed overdose (“give my love to Annik”) is almost as heart breaking as his eventual demise. Ultimately though Curtis is portrayed as a victim of both an unfortunate chemical experiment to limit his epilepsy and his inability to consolidate the wildly different world’s he inhabited as a star and a husband from Macclesfield. His death remains a tragic waste.

Outside of the fact that I like them and watched them on the same day, the main these films have in common is their deliberate normalisation of their iconic subjects. Whilst there are shots of gigs and parties in other cities, Curtis’ rock star life is never glamorous. The story starts and ends in Macclesfield, and whilst Ian admits it’s a place he’s been trying to escape his whole life, you feel that his upbringing only adds to his inability to do the decent thing and set Deborah free. Theirs is a story in which being a rock star is in some ways irrelevant and Control can just as easily be seen as a northern kitchen-sink drama about doomed romanticism.

Similarly the Sex Pistols. Vilified, glorified, iconicized, they will always have a place near the top of the 20th Century’s lists of most important artists. And yet the two most powerful moments in the film come not from any sense of a band defining the times or changing musical history, but from when you see them as John, Steve, Glen, Sid and Paul; some blokes from London.

The Sex Pistols and some more bricks

Lydon’s wistfulness when he talks about a Christmas party in Huddersfield given by the band to help the children of striking workers strikes a real chord when shown against interviews of clueless councilors decrying them as evil and banning them from playing. Similarly when Rotten is moved when discussing the loss of Vicious (‘he died for fuck’s sake’) it’s easy forget that this is the most instantly recognisable face of the punk movement talking about his number two. This is a bloke called John mourning the pointless and unnecessary death of his mate.

Movies about musicians are mostly about as necessary as (to paraphrase Laurie Anderson) dancing about architecture, but in Control and the Filth and the Fury the power is not in the music or the fans or the fame but in the way that ordinary people can become extraordinary.

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