After years of under-representation in popular culture, the story of Joy Division has been ceremonially re-presented through a bizarre triangle of films. First was the cartoonish 24 Hour Party People, a ramshackle trawl though the carnival of the Manchester music scene from punk to post punk to baggy, all seen through the Tristram Shandy-esque eyes of Tony Wilson. Whilst this captured some of the anarchic jouissance of a record company (Factory records) with a Situationist ethic where contracts were signed in Wilson’s blood on knowingly chic boardroom tables, the bit-part which Joy Division play ultimately “renders the scaffolding dangerous”, to quote a certain S. Ryder. Second was Control, the iconising black and white biopic of Ian Curtis, as pictured by long-time devotee and photographer Anton Corbijn. In attempting to recreate the mythology surrounding Curtis, that most archetypal tortured genius, chased to the grave by his shadow, the other band members were reduced to supporting players, and Curtis’ demise seemed a beautifully shot formality, rather like the feeling, upon glimpsing a new Peter Saville sleeve, that the existence of this new and wonderful artefact was entirely inevitable.
Most recently, and most successfully, Joy Division: The Documentary presented archive footage and interviews to artfully piece together the journeys that the band were taking, journeys which ultimately led in tragically different directions. It brings home the largely accidental nature of the magic that the four young men created. As we see the band blooming from shambolic post-punksters to era-defining musicians, bass hero Hooky describes it all as “easy”. They were, it seems, just being themselves, doing what came naturally. And what came naturally was a kind of fierce attachment to the importance of authenticity, married to a vision of the darker side of humanity and a gloomy aesthetic which perfectly evoked their own crumbling surroundings. An ailing
Or rather, that was Ian Curtis. Inevitably the triangulation of these three films, and the attention of the three remaining band members, focuses on Curtis’ own demise, both mysterious and sadly obvious in hindsight. Saville calls the trajectory of Curtis and Joy Division “the last true story in pop”. We hear very little from Curtis himself, and yet his presence suffuses every frame of the film. The nearest we come to a direct connection, unmediated by the heavy sheen of music and movement, is in a brief radio interview and an eerie recording of Curtis being hypnotized by band-mate Bernard Sumner and regressing to talk about previous lives, just weeks before his death.
This is one of the few hints that those around him recognised the trouble he was in. We may be distracted by the numerous reminders of just how special Joy Division were, but most viewers will already know the end of the story, the march of a self-condemned man to his own punishment and on into posterity. The band’s own lack of awareness of the extent of his struggle, their inability to help, is painfully clear. Young men more interested in making loud music, enjoying success and getting fucked rather than making existential statements about being fucked. They never really listened to the lyrics, or made a connection between the doom-laden images and their writer’s mental health. They were never to be the helpers that he needed, the helpers who probably could not have helped him anyway. The story of a suicide is always many things, and one of these things is a challenge to psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic interpretation after the event is one thing, but where was the therapeutic help which Curtis might have benefited from? The nearest the film comes is footage of a neurologist discussing anti-epileptic medication. Sumner is in little doubt that Curtis’ burgeoning epilepsy, and the drugs he took to control it, contributed greatly to his eventual demise. But where was Lacan when Curtis needed him the most?
Joy Division: The Documentary includes excerpts from Malcolm Whitehead’s legendary short film- unsteady, grainy footage of three songs at the Bowden Vale Youth Club in March 1979, where the power of the music can be seen stunning audiences still reeling from the initial punk explosion, ill-prepared for a blast of white hot futurism drenched in the decay of recent history. If you look carefully, you can just make out an old man stood motionless on the front row amongst the pulsing, steaming youth of Greater Manchester, his grey hair swept back in the style beloved of continental academics, his eyes dancing behind spectacles, nodding his head to a particularly holy trinity in this order- “She's Lost Control”, “Shadowplay”, “Leaders of Men”.
Jacques Lacan was really into Joy Division.