Television, Live Transmission: Control and the Televised Performance Scene
by Brian Fauteux
A performance scene is a critical component of the music biopic, establishing links between the past and present, and between viewers and their memories of a particular band or (more often than not deceased) artist. Performances-whether revered or criticized-highlight memorable moments of a musical career and can motivate and structure the narrative of a music biopic. Gary R. Edgerton cites television as an especially influential medium for delivering music performances to viewers, arguing that it has “transformed the way tens of millions of viewers think about historical figures and events” through numerous nonfictional and fictional portrayals (1). This essay considers the televised performance of “Transmission” by Joy Division in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) to highlight the ways in which the performance scene, as a signature event in the band’s popular memory, bridges the past and present by integrating aspects of the original televised performances into contemporary popular culture. Moreover, the performance of “Transmission” marks a critical point in Joy Division’s career. The band generates attention and popularity through the exposure granted by the power of television-an increasingly prominent medium in the promotion of popular music at the time of the original performances. Corbijn’s representation of the “Transmission” performance advances both the represented and popular historic narrative of the band, illustrating the significant contribution of both television and film to the collective and popular history and memory of Joy Division.
Control recalls the life of the late Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), from his time as a young David Bowie fan and student in Macclesfield, England, to his years as the lead singer of Joy Division. The film ends with Curtis’s suicide on May 18, 1980, succeeding emotional hardships stemming from his difficulties in balancing his marriage to Deborah Woodruff (Samantha Morton), and time spent on the road with his band and girlfriend, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara). Control is Corbijn’s first feature film, following a directorial career that includes many music videos, such as Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” (1993), multiple videos for Depeche Mode (e.g. “Personal Jesus” in 1989 and “In Your Room” in 1994), and the video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” (1988 reissue). Corbijn’s relationship to Joy Division precedes his direction of “Atmosphere,” as he photographed the band in the late 1970s. As Corbijn notes in a recent interview, “I had moved to England to be close to that music at the time, and I was very into Joy Division. I worked with them, took pictures of them that became synonymous with their music, and I was forever linked” (Tewksbury). The framing, composition and aesthetics of the places and spaces seen and heard in Control are often reflective of Corbijn’s iconic black-and-white images from that time.
Corbijn’s transition from photographing Joy Division to directing a feature film about the band is important to consider within the context of the music biopic. Certainly, Corbijn’s extensive role as a shaper of Joy Division’s mediated image factors into the way in which Control’s aesthetics and narrative are represented. The high-contrast black and white scenes in Control recall this relationship between Corbijn and Joy Division-that of the mediator and the mediated-emphasizing the camera’s place in representing, re-imagining, and transmitting music history. It seems fitting then, that Corbijn should choose to amalgamate two memorable live televised performances into his “Transmission” scene: the September 1978 performance of “Shadowplay” on Tony Wilson’s Granada Reports, and the September 1979 performance of “Transmission,” Unknown Pleasure’s non-album single, on BBC2’s Something Else. “Transmission” is the only full-length, complete performance in the film, recorded and played in actuality by Riley and the other actors who play the band.
Control’s “Transmission” performance begins in similar fashion to the 1978 performance of “Shadowplay” (with some slight differences in Wilson’s introduction of the band). Riley, like Curtis, stands to the left of Craig Parkinson (playing Wilson), with his head bowed as the band is introduced: “Seeing as how this is the first television program which brought you the first appearances from everyone from The Beatles to The Buzzcocks, we like to think we bring you the most new and interesting sounds in the Northwest. They’re called Joy Division…” The band of actors is positioned on individual cylindrical podiums (aside from the drummer, Harry Treadaway, playing Stephen Morris), just as Joy Division is on the original Granada Reports performance of “Shadowplay.” After this introduction, the scene cuts to a shot of the performance framed by a television set in the Curtis family homes (that of Ian’s parents’ and of Ian and Deborah’s), followed then by the performance of “Transmission,” which, for the most part, mirrors the 1979 BBC2 performance. The iconic shots of Peter Hook with his Rickenbacker bass are recreated with actor Joe Anderson in Hook’s place, and the low-angle shots from the original broadcast looking up at Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), who glares downward at his guitar neck while playing the song’s riff, also make their way into Corbijn’s representation of “Transmission.” The performance effectively joins the most compelling parts from the original two broadcasts: that of Wilson’s introduction of “Shadowplay,” and the more proficient performance of “Transmission” that takes place later in the band’s career. The result is a new performance scene that draws upon memorable moments from Joy Division’s popular history.
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