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Joy Division's inner sadness

'Control' a moving portrait of '70s post-punk pioneers

Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis, Joy Division's haunted leader. Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis, Joy Division's haunted leader. (dean rogers/the weinstein company)

The music of Joy Division came as such a shock in 1978 they had to invent a new term for it: post-punk. Chilly and despairing, with frontman Ian Curtis's baritone growling over an industrial throb, the songs also extended compassion toward those with ears to hear it. It was the sound of depression made danceable, and from that foundation arose the Cure, the Smiths, the early U2 - endless legions of shoe-gazers, mope-rockers, Goth bands, and nightclub lonely hearts. All you emo fashionistas and Interpol fans, listen up - your music starts here.

His bandmates built the tunes, but Joy Division's sensibility came from Curtis, a haunted epileptic whose legend stems as much from how he left the world as for what he did while he was in it. "Control," Anton Corbijn's fine rock biopic, breaks no new ground - other than to introduce a bleak visual beauty to the genre - but it's a steady and moving memorial to a man who rarely felt comfortable in his own skin.

Corbijn is a much-respected celebrity photographer who shot Joy Division and directed one of its videos during the band's brief 1978-1980 existence; he's as responsible as anyone for their stark iconography. This is his first feature film; as you'd expect, it's visually arresting and narratively a bit tentative.

Shooting in a grainy but precise black and white, Corbijn re-creates the Manchester, England, of the late '70s, when lads like Curtis (played by Sam Riley) and Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) had little to do but steal old ladies' prescription medicines and listen to David Bowie records. Then the two attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976; as the great 2002 film "24 Hour Party People" has already dramatized, everyone who was there came out and immediately started a rock group.

"Control" doesn't delve much into making-the-band details, and that's frustrating to anyone who loves songs like "Heart and Soul" and "These Days." Based on a 1995 memoir by Curtis's widow, Deborah, the movie looks out at the world from Ian's sad, glazed eyes. Sumner and the other Joy Division members, bassist Peter Hook (Joe Anderson) and drummer Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway), hover in the background, as do the group's manager (hilariously played by Toby Kebbell) and Manchester punk impresario Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson).

Riley's rather prettier than the real Curtis, which shouldn't matter but does. When he launches into "Transmission," though, you feel as if you're sampling a secret history; the actors play their own instruments in the concert sequences and they successfully re-create that spare, unyielding wall of gloom. Riley gets Curtis's odd stage movements down, too - especially the robotic, eerily fluid pumping of the arms. You know it's a successful performance because you can't take your eyes off him.

The backstage story, as told here, is less transfixing, messier, sadder. Curtis married too young, became a father too young, fell in love with another woman once fame came knocking. It's the old rock-movie cliche, but where another man - Johnny Cash, for instance - might howl at the moon and scratch wherever it itches, the Joy Division leader was tormented by indecision.

On one side is Deborah (Samantha Morton, giving a stock part sympathy and depth); on the other is a Belgian fan named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara) who in this telling is lovely and gentle and not much beyond that. In the middle is Ian, paralyzed by a deepening depression and increasingly frequent epileptic seizures. The titles of the songs say it all: "Isolation," "She's Lost Control," "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the latter the band's single best-known song and heard on the soundtrack in its magnificent original glory.

The last half of "Control," by contrast, is surprisingly quiet, as if Corbijn were straining to hear Curtis's unraveling thoughts. The result is both a surprisingly lucid portrayal of clinical depression and dramatically a bit stiff. (It also doesn't bode well for any Nick Drake biopics in the works.) What seems most clear is how young this Ian is - how, despite a singing voice that's stoic and mature, a man's voice, he's a boy in over his head.

Curtis was just 23 at the end, and "Control" re-creates his last night with a faithfulness that stops just short of necrophilia. The next day, Joy Division was to leave for its first American tour, but he'd already written his and the band's epitaph in the song "Novelty." "Whatcha gonna do when the novelty is gone?" Curtis asked - demanded to know, really - and then, in misery and self-pity, he did it. Mourn the man, says the film, but romanticize him at your peril.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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Control

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Written by: Matt Greenhalgh, based on the autobiography "Touching From a Distance" by Deborah Curtis

Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 121 minutes

Rated: R (language, brief sexuality)

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