Music Break: the music of Joy Division performed by Sam Riley in CONTROL (2007)


It’s been nearly a month since I saw this rock biopic, but I’m still haunted by Control. I mentioned in this post that no other film affected me quite like this one. It’s a beautiful film in so many ways, the cinematography, the acting, the dialog… but it’s also a sad, utterly heartbreaking film that will likely stay with you for days, or in my case, weeks.

What’s incredible about Anton Corbijn‘s debut [as well as Sam Riley‘s in his first ever feature film role], is that many people become fans of Joy Division, three decades after it was formed in 1976. Even people who attended Ian Curtis’ 30th anniversary tribute admitted they were introduced to him through this film.


Joy Division’s style of music isn’t exactly my cup of tea but I can’t help but being quite mesmerized by it. I’ve been listening to their music, both the original and the ones performed by the actors in Control. Strangely enough, after watching clips of the real band on youtube, I actually prefer the live performances of the film version. Even my co-worker who’s a huge Joy Division fan said the same after I lent him my dvd just days after I saw it. I was surprised he hadn’t seen Control given how big a fan of Joy Division he is.

tumblr_o01tslI47v1r1yqj1o10_500So this post is my tribute to the band’s frontman Ian Curtis, as well as Sam Riley who practically became the character. Riley and the actors portraying the band did their own singing for the film, and they did a spectacular job. Sam was in a band in his early 20s called 10,000 Things (which you can listen to in youtube), so he’s got that natural rock star vibe. But the way he conveyed Curtis’ despair and sense of isolation is incredibly convincing, quite a feat for any actor, let alone a complete newbie in his first ever film role.

In fear every day, every evening,
He calls her aloud from above,
Carefully watched for a reason,
Painstaking devotion and love,
Surrendered to self preservation,
From others who care for themselves.
A blindness that touches perfection,
But hurts just like anything else.

Isolation, isolation, isolation.

Mother I tried please believe me,
I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,
I’m ashamed of the person I am.

Isolation, isolation, isolation.

But if you could just see the beauty,
These things I could never describe,
These pleasures a wayward distraction,
This is my one lucky prize.

Isolation, isolation, isolation…

I still cry every time I think about the tragic ending of Curtis’ life when he hanged himself on the eve of the US tour. Curtis’ songwriting was filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness and alienation, if only people had realized he was writing about his own pain.

This scene is undoubtedly one of the most entrancing scenes of the entire film. Not only was the song itself had me in a trance but so was the performance. The epileptic dance, that strange look in his eyes as he performed the song… it’s as if he was possessed by Curtis’ soul as he sang this.

Here’s the first live performance by the band Warsaw, so it’s before they became Joy Division.

Joy Division’s music is truly a seminal one… and it shall always live on.

Hope you enjoyed today’s Music Break. Are you a fan of Joy Division or have seen Control? I’d love to hear what you think.

26 thoughts on “Music Break: the music of Joy Division performed by Sam Riley in CONTROL (2007)

  1. Brilliant post! This is really the only Sam Riley performance I love (I know, you’ll hate me for that), but what a performance it is! The whole film is so well made and so effecting, and the music is so key to that. Love that you highlighted it here.

    1. “This is really the only Sam Riley performance I love” That’s because you probably haven’t seen many of them. He’s incredible in The Dark Valley (an Austrian Western) that I actually think is on par to his work here even if it’s not as iconic.

      I’m thrilled you love this one though and indeed it was well-made and made from the heart as Corbijn was a huge fan of Joy Division and that showed. I’m glad that the actors actually performed the songs, it made the film so authentic.

  2. Great post!! Oh man, I’ve had this DVD for years. I like Joy Division and am a huge music fan overall so I don’t know why I haven’t watched this yet. You’ve convinced me to dig it out & finally get around to watching it! 🙂

    1. I am now a fan of Joy Division and I totally get why they had such a huge influence even in today’s bands. You should absolutely see Control, I mean my colleague who loves JD was blown away by it and he even said Sam nailed Ian Curtis’ performance on stage and his voice also sounded like him. Incredible.

      1. I’ll see it! I promise! 🙂 Just have to wait for a time hubby can watch it with me since he’s been wanting to see it too. Glad to see such a positive review of it – I don’t think I’ve ever seen another blogger mention it.

    1. I think out of all the music played in the film, Isolation, Disorder and Transmission are my faves but the rest are great as well. There’s something so haunting about the songs and Sam’s performance as Ian.

  3. While I much prefer the film 24 Hour Party People as well as a documentary that came out around the same time as Control did. Control is still a phenomenal film.

    Being someone who loves Joy Division. There’s so much material that I love I don’t listen to their music very often. It’s not the kind of music that is very upbeat as you have to be in a certain mood to hear it as also quite unsettling. You have to understand about who these guys were and where they were coming from. Because of that performance from the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in 1976, many of the people that attended that show all started a band. The Sex Pistols was like this fucking wake-up call in an era of music that had become full of itself where bands were playing 20-30 minute drum/guitar solos or making records that become yawningly boring.

    Because of punk, many of these young people who wanted to play music but didn’t know how found a way to learn how to play. In the case of Joy Division, none of them had any formal training or background as they used their emotions to pretty much convey what they were saying musically. It’s very unsettling and it is one of many distinctive elements of what would become post-punk.

    As far as the music of Joy Division is concerned. The 2 studio albums in Unknown Pleasures and Closer are must-have as I only listen to the latter on rainy days. Days where it’s damp, ugly, and no sense of sunshine coming as it’s one of a handful of albums I only listen to in those moments. For me, the album to get from the band is the 1988 compilation album Substance (which is the same name of the New Order compilation album that came out around the same time) as that was the record that really got me into the band.

    “Love Will Tear Us Apart” isn’t my favorite song by the band but it’s pretty much in my opinion. The greatest song that is ever made. There’s nothing like it that I’ve ever heard as it’s sad but so intoxicating to listen to.

    I have to credit Nine Inch Nails for introducing me to Joy Division because they did a great cover of “Dead Souls” for the film soundtrack to The Crow as they were my band as a teen and still are. If it wasn’t for NIN, I wouldn’t have heard of a lot of bands including Joy Division and I probably wouldn’t have discovered some of the music that David Bowie did that wasn’t “Let’s Dance”. In fact, I want to post not just a cover that NIN did with Peter Murphy of Bauhaus did that I love but it’s also in my opinion one of the best covers of any song by Joy Division. If you think the Killers’ version of “Shadowplay” is any good, then you’re so fucking wrong….

    1. I want to see 24 Hour Party People! I think I mentioned to you that Sam Riley had a cameo in it but got cut in the theatrical release. I think Control is phenomenal because it’s focuses more on Ian Curtis more than the band.

      No it’s not an upbeat music, in fact it’s very melancholy, but it’s mesmerizing and has that haunting quality. It’s interesting that the idea for Joy Division forming as a band started in that Sex Pistols concert, at least according to Control. Yes I think it’s incredible that none of JD band members had formal training, it’s more an instinctive thing for them. But a lot of Ian’s songwriting is a gift that he just had, as he was writing poems too since he was still in high school. Ahah, interesting that you listen to their songs on rainy, damp days, I actually would prefer more upbeat stuff on those days as I’d get even more depressed listening to Ian’s very somber lyrics!

      “Love Will Tear Us Apart” isn’t my fave of the bunch, ‘Disorder’ and ‘She’s Lost Control’ are the two I listen to the most.

      Thanks for you insightful comment, Steven!

  4. Very impressive the actors learned to perform the music. Very sad story. There’s emotional turmoil embedded in the lyrics and vocal, and the instrumentation elevates the sense of doom. As you say, the biopic is a great introduction to Joy Division and a film that fans can appreciate too.

    1. Hi Chris! Yes, impressive all around, the direction, script, acting, etc. The story is very sad but thankfully the film isn’t a complete downer as there’s some good humor and amusing scenes. There is always that sense of doom as you said though, esp when Ian is all by himself, and the way the scene were filmed are so beautifully heartbreaking.

    1. Hi Jordan! I’m always thankful to Anton Corbijn for introducing me to Joy Division. I bet a lot of young folks who just saw this film would become fans, or at least intrigued by, Joy Division.

  5. Ruth, I’ve been away so sorry about not visiting lately. Thanks for this post. I love music, and I did not know about Joy Division or Control. I’ll have to watch it now. Great post!

    1. Hi Cindy! Hope you are well. This film is definitely well worth your time even if the music isn’t your cup of tea, but you might find yourself loving it, like I did. And Sam Riley is quite a revelation.

    1. Yes indeed, he (well the movie) made me a fan of Joy Division, and I bet there are lots of people in my camp 😉 Sam was phenomenal in this, so yeah partly I wanted to highlight his performance as well as Joy Divions’ songs.

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