With Punk it was easy to say 'fuck off,' anyone could say 'fuck off.' It took something different to say 'I'm fucked.'
With nearly nothing new to say on the subject of the influential band, the new documentary feature Joy Division instead leaves it to the people who experienced the madness firsthand, as they take their rightful spots center stage and indulge our voyeuristic, knowledge-hungry, musically inclined persons. However, rather than simply take the talking-head approach to storytelling, director Grant Gee (Radiohead's Meeting People Is Easy) treats us to a film that would feel equally at home in the art house as the Cineplex. Compiled from original interviews with the surviving members and archived footage, Gee's documentary is as engaging as any typical Hollywood fanfare story-wise, leaving the fact that the doc centers around one of the most important and short-lived bands of all time really feeling like icing on the cake.
Simply reading a press release on the history of Joy Division, from their first incarnation out of the grime of late-1970's Manchester on, would almost be enough to captivate the everyday person, but what Gee has done is show them in such a human light, that by the end of the doc, there isn't a single person ready to leave. Some of the best and most captivating stuff in the film's 93 minute runtime comes straight out of the mouths of the people who remember it most - Hook's raspy laughs during stories of drunk nights out, Morris's still awestruck memories of rehearsals, Sumner's haunting recollection of Ian Curtis's first full on grand mal epileptic fit. It's not easy to reign in the powerful emotion that had transpired over the few years the band was together, but Gee has made a great effort and has really succeeded. Along the way we are also treated to journalists' views of the time and scene, as well as words from other influential persons, one such being the late Tony Wilson, whose interviews were bittersweet to watch, but filled with some of the heartier laughs.
Spliced and layered over the band's words is archival footage as well. Bootleg video recordings of Hook and Sumner standing still while Curtis violently dances and shakes on stage fade in and out as they recollect certain gigs' stories. It's almost hard to watch some of the footage, as Curtis looks as though he's about to dance himself into a fit right in front of your eyes. Thankfully, we aren't subjected to any such footage.
But the film is not just a story of Joy Division; it's also a story of Manchester. The city, cited as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, has undergone more changes than your everyday California blonde, and has come out looking nowhere near as kept up. Gee's lens captures a trove of "Places That Are No Longer There" during rainy days, including Factory Records, Hacienda nightclub, the band's rehearsal space and more, all set to a hearty helping of the music that derived inspiration from the city's streets. It is a sad homage paid to the musical town, but a pertinent one.
In the end, the easy and commercial way to handle this doc would have been to focus solely on Curtis' life and death in respect to the band, but the film isn't called Ian Curtis, it's called Joy Division. And as a retrospective history on that band and where they came from, it succeeds perfectly.
Joy Division Trailer