Unlike many stars who died tragically young, Ian Curtis left only fragments behind. Beyond the canon of Joy Division music and a smattering of televised performances, there is little, almost nothing, by way of recorded documentation.
Sean Harris plays Curtis in 24 Hour Party People. His manner is a joyless lobster, a pinched threat eager to deflate anyone with expectations equal to or greater than his own. In Control it is Sam Riley, a more kindly and sympathetic presence, but ill equipped to cope with domesticity or stardom.
These opposing performances construct two very specific portraits of Curtis. Only those who knew the artist, of course, can say which, if either, is the more accurate. Likely the truth is an amalgam of the two. But that’s barely the point. An archive interview with BBC radio reveals Curtis to be warm, quietly spoken, evidently intelligent, and with a sense of humour. It is not the Curtis who yells “cunt!” at Tony Wilson from across a bar room in 24 Hour Party People. Television personality and founder of Factory Records, Wilson recalls that first meeting with Curtis in his book, 24 Hour Party People, itself a story based on the original screenplay written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The book is prefaced by a suitably elegiac Wilsonism, that some of what you will read is fact, much of it is fabricated. He is a ‘scrawny young lad,’ writes Wilson, ‘at the other side of the pool table. Intense. Intense eyes. And a mouth on him.’ This is Wilson’s introduction to Curtis. It is our introduction to Sean Harris, an actor no stranger to intensity, later finding lead roles as murderer Ian Brady (See No Evil: The Moors Murderers, 2006), a homicidal racist (Outlaw, 2007) and a megalomaniac bent on world domination (Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, 2015).
The pool table episode appears in Control. But the outbursts differ. Here it begins with Sam Riley sharing conspiratorial looks with his bandmates, before he marches off to a table where Wilson is sitting and confronts him. A whisper in his ear. He calls Wilson a twat for not yet putting his band on the television show he hosts. He gives Wilson a piece of paper that carries the name of the band — Joy Division — and the words ‘you cunt’. Compared with Harris, Riley’s remonstration in Control appears schooled and wise, befitting an actor who would one day play Jack Kerouac (On the Road, 2012).[su_icon_text icon=”icon: chevron-right” icon_size=”20″ url=”https://headpress.com/product/joy-devotion/”]Read more about Ian Curtis in the book, Joy Devotion[/su_icon_text]
Wilson considered Curtis’ death a ‘romantic altruistic suicide’. Not much by way of recorded documents exist of the real Ian Curtis, but he has his fair share of rumours, just like his peers, dead like him at such a young age. Before the Internet, before these two films, some believed Ian Curtis of Joy Division was discovered hanged not at home but from a lamp post. There was another, stranger rumour that Curtis’ suicide was a fiction, that he simply decided to take flight one day, recoiling from the budding pressure of stardom for a new life as someone else. Jim Morrison, perhaps. Or Sam Riley. Or Sean Harris.