Love Will Tear Us Apart

A couple weeks ago, I had the interesting experience of having a complete, 72 hour immersion in the mythology and history of the British punk/new wave band Joy Division. My introduction to the band is almost completely via their only charting hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart. I was captivated the very first time that I heard the song by its combination of melancholy and low vocals with a pulsing, frenetic excitement in the song itself. The heart and soul of Joy Division, and therefore Love Will Tear Us Apart, was frontman Ian Curtis. Released this year were two related movies, a documentary, Joy Division, and feature film, Control.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Joy Division was a punk band (before the ‘new wave’ label existed) from Manchester formed after a Sex Pistols concert. Ian Curtis, their singer and primary songwriter, was known for his low singing voice, his manic-depressive personality, and his wild stage manner. Indeed, as the band grew in popularity, his stage mannerisms involuntarily melded into his offstage life after he was diagnosed with epilepsy. At age 23, after struggling with the side effects of epilepsy medication, he took his own life three weeks after releasing the biggest single of his career and the week before the band left for their first American tour. After his death, his bandmates reformed into the band New Order.
Control is a slow, thoughtful and ultimately impressive look at the inner conflicts within Ian Curtis. The film, shot in black-and-white, takes its time to, sometimes brutally, document the pressures, real and imagined, that ultimately led him to suicide. Biopics, especially biopics of musicians, have a tendency to canonize their subjects. This film accepts the flaws in Curtis’s life while affirming the quality of his art. The most heartbreaking scenes are those between Curtis (played magnificently by Sam Riley) and his wife, Deborah (the always underappreciated Samantha Morton).
Joy Division is a straightforward documentary chronicling the four years that Joy Division existed from its formation in Manchester to Curtis’s suicide in 1980. Because the entire history of the band spans four years, the documentary is able to provide some depth to the story. All of the former bandmates participated along with other music producers and managers and those interviews provide a really interesting perspective on the story. Especially moving were the interspersed interviews of Deborah Curtis, his wife and Annik Honore, a French journalist who became his girlfriend/mistress. The documentary and film appear to be released through the same production and distribution companies, and I am unsure of the target audience of the documentary. It provides great background for those curious after the film, but I think most of the information would be lost on those not already familiar with the band.
Watching the two films together can be very depressing (like the time that I watched Pan’s Labyrinth, Babel and Children of Men back-to-back because of the director’s friendship), it also highlights what is unique about Ian Curtis’s life. One of the bands early songs, She’s Lost Control, deals with somebody losing control of their life, and really the last year of Curtis’s life was a slow spiral out of control. Between his ballooning fame, the distance growing between he and his wife and his epileptic fits, he was rapidly losing control over every facet of his life.
The other remarkable thing about the short life of Joy Division is just how good of a song Love Will Tear Us Apart is. The lyrics perfectly balance on the line between wistful and bitter, between remembrance and regret: Why is the bedroom so cold?/You turn away on your side. Is my timing that flawed?/Our respect run so dry.
The music pulsates with an tight, eager beat, but the disembodied, almost dull voice has no eagerness. Just regret. It is a testament to the solid songwriting that all the different covers out there, from Nouvelle Vague‘s borderline kitsch and Jose Gonzales‘s bare acoustic sound to Fall Out Boy’s godawful whiny-rock squeal.
Nothing, however, can come close to the haunting desperation of the original:

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