The Abbreviated Joy of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis

The Abbreviated Joy of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis

This coming May 18th will mark the 19th anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis, a Cheshire, England native and the lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division, whose life was recently immortalized in the 2008 film Control. The film is based largely on the memoir of Curtis’ wife Deborah, his high school girlfriend whom he married in 1975; at the time he was 19 and she a mere 18. He joined Joy Division in 1976 after meeting two of his future band members, who were in search of a vocalist, at a Sex Pistols concert. Her burgeoning career was halted when Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in his kitchen at the age of 23, leaving behind his wife; daughter Natalie; lover Annik Honore; band members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris; and a swelling number of fans.  Following his death, his fellow band members went on to form New Order.  

Before watching the film the other night, I perused some Youtube clips of the actual band playing live, which deepened my appreciation for Sam Riley’s portrayal of Curtis.  In Riley’s reincarnation, Curtis initially comes across as a deeply and inherently romantic artist, reciting from memory poems by Wordsworth, and an incredibly sensitive human being, whose time as a civil servant in an employment office for the mentally disabled is shown taking a psychological toll on him.  Additionally, Curtis suffered from epilepsy and seizures, and while the film early on shows him purloining and ingesting larazipan taken from the medicine cabinet of a high school friend’s grandmother, a later scene with a doctor who explains Curtis’ condition and prescribes him numerous medications, suggests that the doctor’s trial-and-error willy-nilly approach to treating Curtis may have been as much a factor in Curtis’ death as any rock star proclivity for recreational drinking or drugs.  Not to mention the awful side effects of the medications.

By midway through the film, Curtis appears to have lost control of his life, hence the film’s title; as his celebrity status blossoms, his personal life and health crumble.  Curtis’ early marriage looms throughout the film with frame after frame featuring his left hand and the gold band that adorned his ring finger.  As the band’s fame grew, he spent more time on the ride away from Deborah, and he ultimately fell out of love with her and into love with a Belgian woman named Annik Honore, who first met Curtis by requesting an interview with the band after a performance one night. As it turned out, she wasn’t an actual journalist, but more of a refined groupie.  In the end, his passion governed his reason just as his medical condition ruled his body and his fans dictated how he spent most of his time, writing, rehearsing, and touring.  Unwilling to cut ties with Annik, divorce Deborah, take his medications properly, and drink less, Curtis turned to suicide, it seems, as the only way for him to exert control over his own world.

In November 2007 The Killer’s released their album Sawdust, and one of the songs on it, entitled “Shadowplay,” is actually a cover of Joy Division.  I just made this discovery after sampling some more of Joy Division’s hits.  I know, I’m a little slow, what can I say.

Check out this clip of Joy Division performing “Shadowplay” in 1978.

Check out this clip of The Killer’s cover of “Shadowplay.” Their video actually alludes directly to the original and incorporates clips from the film so you can see Sam Riley as Ian Curtis and compare to the above clip of the artist himself singing.

By definition, a shadowplay is a play in which the actors appear as shadows cast upon a screen placed between the stage and the auditorium.  Yet it seems as if Curtis put all of himself into his writing and performing, so much of himself that the experience, perhaps, left him a shadow of a man, but in the moment, there seemed to be no illusive barriers between him and his craft.  While it is never addressed in the film, Curtis also seems to suffer from depression.  Whether his melancholia, which was undeniably tangled up in his sense of himself as an artist, his epilepsy, his guilt over his adultery and his absence in his daughter’s life, was a cause or effect in his life would be difficult to determine.  Nonetheless, when reading last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “A Long Journey in the Dark: My Life with Chronic Depression” by Daphne Merkin, I found a common thread between her and Curtis.  During her most recent stay at a mental hospital, Merkin found herself puzzled by those who functioned “normally” in the world: she asks, “How had they figured out a way to live without getting bogged down in the shadows? From what source did they draw all their energy?”.  The most significant difference between Merkin and Curtis, of course, is that she continues to battle and write about the shadows that weigh her down, while Curtis was subsumed by them.  In his sonnets, Shakespeare claims immortality is achieved via offspring, art, and love.  Curtis has at least been assured this type of extended life, which is far better than oblivion any day.

2 Responses to “The Abbreviated Joy of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis”
  1. Erika says:

    The ties and connections between artists and art forms continually surprises me, though I don’t know why.

    It saddens me when people of such artistic depth are often the victims of such psychological pain.

    Great post.

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  1. […] Kane has become to the theatre world what Ian Curtis of Joy Division has long been to the alternative music world: a beloved cult icon.   Their darkly inspired works […]

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