Despite its title, Joy Division (now available on DVD) could’ve just as easily been titled Manchester. As we’re told in the film’s opening moments, this is a documentary about a city, not a pop band. Filmmaker Grant Gee, responsible for Radiohead’s 1998 tour doc Meeting People Is Easy, brings into focus the political and cultural revolution of a post-industrial British city and four young men who were looking for their place in the ruins.
To help with his informative chronological account of Joy Division and the genius of singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself in 1980, Gee called upon just about every major player involved with the band, including surviving members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris (otherwise known as three-fourths of New Order). Sumner says that he never liked listening to the band’s first record, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, and that Manchester was so ugly, he never saw a tree until he was nine years old.
There’s also legendary Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson, the irascible live wire who passed away last year. (Wilson was the central figure in the kind-of-real, kind-of-fictionalized account of Manchester in 2002’s freewheeling 24 Hour Party People.) Wilson is never short on glibly entertaining and overly profound sound bites. His perspectives are equally welcome: “Joy Division were the first band to use the energy and simplicity of punk to express more complex emotions.”
As Sumner says of the post-Sex Pistols frenzy, “Sooner or later, somebody was going to want to say more than, ‘Fuck you’; to say ‘I’m fucked.’”
All this is rounded out by performance footage, personal photos, archival films and newly discovered audio tapes. Even longtime fans who feel they know all there is to know about Joy Division and Curtis will be engaged from the opening moments.