In some ways, the Joy Division story is an odd one for a major documentary film. It’s not that the story isn’t interesting – far from it – just that it is perhaps overly familiar. Anton Corbijn’s brilliant Control was only released six months ago, and there was a BBC documentary about Factory shown around the same time. Coupled with this, the amount of archive footage is small – much of it (like the Granada studios and BBC Oxford Road sessions) has been seen many times before. The film’s major coup was getting Annik Honoré to speak for the first time, but she didn’t really have much of interest to say. Against this, there was a Deborah Curtis shaped hole in the centre of film, papered over with quotes from her book.
So reservations aplenty, but director Grant Gee has managed to fashion a remarkably good film out of the limited resources available. After Corbijn’s grainy monochrome, it’s quite a shock to see everything in glorious colour. Grubby as it was, seventies Manchester doesn’t look quite so shockingly grim and war-torn when shown in colour. Sunshine and blue skies weren’t eighties inventions. The film’s structure is chronological, eschewing too much fancy contextualizing with a more or less straight telling of the story. Both Barney and Hooky are as unguarded and revealing as I’ve heard them. Ian Curtis comes across in a better light than he did in Control. In Corbijn’s film it was easy to forget just how young he was. Here it’s more apparent, and the sense of regret that the surviving band members have that they didn’t handle his illness better, or read the warning signs more clearly is palpable. They were also young, and simply not experienced enough to deal with it. In retrospect, all three feel that their singer was wracked with guilt about letting them down through his illness, and this made him hide it is much as he could from them. Which, of course, just made things worse.
Gee weaves the interviews with archive footage very well. He uses the limited amount of material available to its best advantage, including some live footage shot by fans. Grainy and tinny, but worth seeing. There is a hilarious bit mid film where John Peel wrestles with the concept of a 33rpm seven inch single. The film’s screenwriter Jon Savage and the late Tony Wilson try to make a case that the band were largely responsible for Manchester’s rebirth as a modern city which is perhaps overstating their impact. But that thesis isn’t overplayed, thankfully. In the end, what leaves the greatest impression is the music. As one interviewee says in the film (Richard Boon? I forget who), it still sounds strikingly modern. It certainly doesn’t sound like it was made almost thirty years ago.
The audience at the showing I was at sat reverentially right through to the end of the credits, which is unusual. And then they filed out in contemplative silence. That in itself is as good a recommendation as any.