It's been one of the more pleasant coincidences of the Toronto International Film Festival this year that there's not one, but two separate films focusing on the times and musical legacy of Manchester's Joy Division. Anton Corbijn's Control is a bio-pic about the band's late singer, Ian Curtis; I had the chance to see it in May at Cannes. The other film -- simply titled Joy Division -- is a documentary take on the band's genesis and influence, their victories and struggles. Directed by Grant Gee (Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy,) Joy Division may not be as immediately striking as Corbjin's film -- with its stark-yet-warm black-and-white photography and Sam Riley's performance as Curtis -- but it's just as compelling.
Formed in the industrial city of Manchester, Joy Division marked a unique turning point in popular music: Where punk turned to post-punk, where anger was replaced by angst. Formed by Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Ian Curtis, Joy Division released only two full-length albums before Curtis's suicide; at the same time, tragedy isn't the only thing that made Joy Division's short discography a legend.
Indeed, Gee's demonstration of that legend is a great demonstration of his technique here -- forming a collage of ephemera and seemingly-random information that forms an easy-to-read big picture. To illustrate just how many bands have covered Joy Division's seminal single 'Love Will Tear Us Apart," we're shown ... an iTunes search screen. And while you'd think that simple blunt instrument of a visual may seem inelegant or crude, it instead works perfectly -- not only proving Joy Division's place in the hearts of their admirers but also in an instant reminding us how completely the music business has changed since the days of hand-crafted 7-inch single sleeves and cut-and-paste artwork -- which, thanks to Gee's fractured-yet-focused technique, we also see.
Gee not only gets important interview moments out of Sumner, Hook and Morris, but he gets smaller, human moments, too -- which are, of course, just as important. There are other contributors - the late Tony Wilson (perhaps best known from his fictionalized exploits in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People), dazed and glazed minor rock personality Genesis P. Orridge, Curtis's friend and lover Annik Honoré -- but we return again and again to Sumner, Hook and Morris. And we should, as they were there. The movie leaps between topics -- the work of William S. Burroughs, the industrial landscape of post-war Manchester (Sumner: "I don't think I saw a tree until I was about 9. ..."), the origins of the infamous waveform album cover for Unknown Pleasures, the forceful power and fleeting poses of punk rock. And it should, because Joy Division did the same.
Gee manages a brute-force balancing act here -- layering information on top of more information, cutting between interviewees, skipping between old TV footage and new photos of what once were the locations of important Manchester clubs -- each numbered in sequence, labeled "Things That are Not There." And we do get a sense of Manchester then and now, and even as it was before then -- newsreels depicting World War II flowing into old home movie footage and then stately shots of the city Manchester's become. The past and present seem more fluid than they normally are in Gee's film, like they are in memories and dreams and good pop songs. We see New Order, the band Sumner Hook and Morris carried on as, performing a Joy Division song (something which, to their credit, they did not do for 18 years after Curtis passed) with the original four-person line-up of band as they were then, performing the same song, layered over it. It should not work. It does, perfectly, bravura confidence leaping off the screen. Joy Division is less a requiem than a celebration; Gee's film is a dense, rich and exciting look at a band who helped make modern pop music become truly modern.