Movies: In 'Control'

In "Control," a British biopic about the 1980s post-punk band Joy Division, Sam Riley, as lead singer Ian Curtis, approaches the microphone with an air of reluctance. With his tidy haircut and shirt buttoned to the top, he looks more like an introvert than a rock star. When he begins to sing, his voice is monotone. Gradually, though, he surrenders to the song, letting his body be overtaken by a frenzied, arm-pumping dance, like a crazed cadet marching himself into the ground. His shirt grows dark with sweat; his eyes turn glassy and wide. Most films about musicians portray music as the one pure joy in their lives. But Riley's performance suggests that the truth is more complex. He has a heavy-browed, gangly-armed grace that reads as both boyish and weary, and his subtle expression of Curtis's rage makes other films' guitar-smashing, bottle-throwing displays seem sloppy and false. Watching Riley, I found myself wishing I'd seen the real Joy Division play live, and his performance left me in awe of the courage it takes to reveal oneself so completely before a crowd.

Curtis occasionally suffered epileptic seizures during shows, and in Riley's portrayal, the line between musical transcendence and neurological breakdown is desperately fine. Maybe that's the point: you can see the struggle on his face as he becomes possessed by the music and fights to maintain control. As the band becomes famous, the singer's hesitation to turn himself inside-out onstage curdles into genuine dread. At one point he refuses to perform. "They don't understand how much I give, how much it affects me," Curtis tells the band's manager as the audience screams for him. Riley's restraint punctures the dangerously romantic notion that Curtis, who killed himself in 1980 on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour, died for his art. He uses the singer's illness, and the toll that each show exacted from him, to explore the ambivalence that an artist can feel for his audience. Riley, who sings all of Curtis's songs in the film, won a British Independent Film Award for his work. But so far he's been overlooked by U.S. awards committees. Don't make the same mistake.