History and the notion of authenticity in Control and 24 Hour Party People

This is a work-in-progress with a very long gestation period. I began work on it back in 2009-10, but wasn’t really happy with it. I sent out a version (about twice as long as this post) for review to a few journals and got back some very mixed feedback (including one savage review). Since early 2011, it has been on the backburner. But the 33rd anniversary of Ian Curtis’ death this weekend reminded me that I should really re-write the paper. At the prompting of a few twitter friends, I’ve posted up some of the paper as it stands and heartily encourage feedback. I know Brett from Airminded received some great feedback on a paper that he crowdsourced reviews for from his blog, and I’m hoping to get something similar with this. If you are patient enough to read this LONG blog post and want to read an even LONGER version, please let me know and I can email a draft. So without further delay, here is my analysis of history and authenticity in Control and 24 Hour Party People:

The 'real' Joy Division

The ‘real’ Joy Division

In Peter Hook’s recent book on Joy Division titled Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, he wrote:

Over the years Joy Division have become a huge part of music culture. A lot of people think they know what happened. But they don’t! Anyone who’s ever written a book or made a film about Joy Division, unless they were sat in that van or car with us, they don’t know anything about it. Me, Barney, Steve, Ian, Rob, Twinny, Terry and Dave. Only us lot know what really happened…

This is a reference to the two films released in the last decade which have heavily featured Curtis and Joy Division, 24 Hour Party People, directed by Michael Winterbottom, in 2002 and Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, in 2007. Since the release of Control, there has been much comparison between the two films over the portrayal of the ‘true story’ of Joy Division (and the wider post-punk scene in Manchester), with Control seen by many as more ‘authentic’ than 24 Hour Party People. I argue that this dichotomy between the ‘authentic’ Control and the ‘unauthentic’ 24 Hour Party People is essentially moot as it falsely prescribes to the idea that film can ever depict past events accurately. Film can only ever represent constructs of the past and cannot depict ‘what actually happened’. Despite Control’s attempts to portray itself as ‘authentic’ and its appeals to cultural authority, this paper will argue that 24 Hour Party People’s explicit demonstration of the construction of historical narratives in film is able to provide the audience with a clear understanding of the processes of history and film.

Control depicted the life and early death of Ian Curtis and was directed by Corbijn, a Dutch photographer who had photographed many of the famous visual portrayals of Joy Division in the late 1970s, creating a dark and shadowy imagery that became part of the band’s iconography. The film was inspired by Deborah Curtis’ biography of her time as Ian Curtis’ wife, Touching from a Distance.[1] The surviving members of Joy Division (who were later New Order) were involved in arranging the soundtrack of the film, so the involvement of Corbijn, Deborah Curtis and the remnants of the band, as well as co-production by Tony Wilson, seemed to imply that Control was the ‘definitive’ narrative of what happened in Joy Division, amongst the Manchester music scene in the late 1970s.

This process of imposing a ‘definitive’ narrative may not have been recognised as such, but four years earlier Michael Winterbottom had directed 24 Hour Party People, a film about Factory Records founder Tony Wilson and the Manchester music scene from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Unlike Control, which immersed itself in trying to obtain a realism through period set design and black and white photography, 24 Hour Party People was very self-aware and self-referential about its building upon popular memories and myths of the Manchester music scene. The film has been celebrated by some scholars and commentators, such as Tara Brabazon, for its explicit recognition of how popular memory is created, with Brabazon writing, ‘[w]ithout an understanding of how times and places morph and shift, the film is unreadable’.[2]

24 Hour Party People, directed by Winterbottom and written by Frank Cottrell Bryce, works by taking by the urban myths of the Manchester music scene and attaching them together into a narrative revolving around Tony Wilson, who signed Joy Division to Factory Records and fostered the band’s stark imagery, amongst many other achievements. This may have led to an unremarkable and standard bio-pic, if it was not for the explicit self-awareness of the film and the willingness to overtly demonstrate the techniques used in constructing the films’ narrative. Brabazon describes this process succinctly:

This is, put simply, a film that changes film making. It melts the fourth wall of cinema, cuts up narrative time, corrodes the delineation between sound and vision and provides the strongest application of Cultural Studies theories and ideas on the screen.[3]

The opening scene of 24 Hour Party People sees Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson re-enacting a piece for Granada TV from the mid-1970s, with ‘Coogan/Wilson’ (this term is used by Brabazon to note to slippage between the ‘real’ Tony Wilson, the fictional Wilson and the actor as Wilson)[4] hang-gliding on the Pennines, intercut with archival footage of the ‘real’ Wilson performing the feat in the 1970s. As a display of the self-awareness of the film, its breaking of the fourth wall and the acknowledgement that it is playing with the notion of ‘the truth’, Coogan/Wilson and as the actor playing Wilson says:

You’re going to be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film, although that actually did happen. Obviously it is symbolic, it works on both levels. I don’t want to tell you too much, don’t want to spoil the film, but I’ll just say… Icarus. If you know what I mean, great; if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. But you should probably read more.

Promotional poster for 24 Hour Party People

Promotional poster for 24 Hour Party People

Contrasts and critiques of 24 Hour Party People and Control 

Even while celebrating the aesthetics of 24 Hour Party People, some criticised the film for its refusal to base itself in ‘the truth’, with many describing Control as more ‘authentic’. Peter Hook, bass player for Joy Division, asserted that ‘Control is a hell of a lot more factual than 24 Hour Party People.’[5] Stephen Morris, the drummer for the band, claimed that 24 Hour Party People was ‘more like a romp, and there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t true, or they were exaggerated’, while Control, for Morris, was ‘more factualised’.[6] Morris went on to describe 24 Hour Party People as ‘a bit like Carry On Factory Records’.[7] In his recent history of Factory Records, Shadowplayers (also released as a documentary film) James Nice continued this description of the film as a piece of ‘Carry On-styled entertainment’, which ‘stood guilty of mythologizing the Factory story to an absurd degree’.[8] Nice called Control an ‘infinitely better movie’, which told the story of Joy Division and Ian Curtis with ‘commendable honesty and panache’.[9] Simon Reynolds felt that 24 Hour Party People substituted ‘suicide, drug fuck-ups and business failures’ (although conveyed in a highly entertaining manner) for a proper history of Factory Records, with the result ‘sure to irritate the only people truly equipped to watch it, while those with no emotional connection to the subject will most likely be confused and leave the theatre having gleaned little sense of what was at stake in Factory’s struggle’.[10]

In Critical Quarterly, Neil Young complained that the film was too centred on Wilson’s supposed narrative, ‘the film’s world is the World According To Wilson, a world that begins and ends with the Manchester postcode’.[11] Wilson would contest this type of statement, with his book putting forward his version of the narratives depicted in the film, openly pointing to where his version and the film diverge.  In his article, Young describes the film as ‘a slice of real-life cultural history’,[12] but this is effectively incorrect. What is depicted in 24 Hour Party People is not really a History (with a capital ‘H’), but it can be used by historians as an example of how to understand contested narratives. The film explicitly demonstrates that narratives are not wholly contained and are always contestable, and even in contemporary times, popular memory remains as intangible and non-empirical as ever.  As Brabazon writes, ‘[o]bviously all films… never present a truth’.[13] Mick Middles, in his history of Factory Records, Factory: The Story of the Record Label (previously released as From Joy Division to New Order: The True Story of Anthony H Wilson and Factory Records), states that both films were unified by ‘the rather dangerous way in which they flitted in and out of historical accuracy’.[14] While ‘dangerous’ may not be the right term to use, exception must be taken in comparing the two films’ approach to historical accuracy – if one film is ‘dangerous’ with using history, it is Control. As argued above, 24 Hour Party People is very upfront in its subversion of history and explicit in its use of myth, but Control seeks to reinforce the myths of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, striving for authenticity when it cannot be achieved. Lindsay Reade, Tony Wilson’s first wife, alluded to something similar in her book with Middles, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis, writing, ‘Whereas 24 Hour Party People may have been, as Tony once remarked “a collection of lies that manages to tell the truth”, Control was, in my opinion, more a collection of truths that somehow told a lie’.[15]

Promotional poster for Control

Promotional poster for Control

The absence of ‘realism’ in cinematic narratives

Although sometimes viewed by historians as trivial and superficial, film is a valuable source for research for historians. Many discussions of film in historical research revolves around what is depicted in film, the mise en scene of the screen, with historians focusing on concepts shared between history and film, such as ‘narrative’ and ‘visual memory’. By concentrating on the narrative of film, historians are primarily concerned with how historical events are portrayed through film and how this cinematic narrative correlates with ‘true’ accounts of what occurred. Comparisons between scholarly narratives and cinematic narratives emphasise the use of film by interested parties to establish their version over other accounts via the medium of popular culture, with historical events in film used to influence contemporary society and establish certain ideas about the past. This discussion, by arguing over the nuances of narrative, seem to imply that film can possibly convey the ‘true’ account – ‘what actually happened’ – which, in the end, it cannot. The fact that ‘film always distorts truth’[16] is something that should be recognised, but this does not mean that historians should be dismissive of film as a tool for historical research. What is so appealing about 24 Hour Party People for historians interested in film is that it explicitly calls into question the notion that film can portray ‘true’ account of particular events and highlights that the narrative of events in film are consciously constructed within the film-making process.

The film-making process of a ‘historical’ film consciously constructs certain narratives and cinematic conventions are adhered to turn complex historical events into a consumable piece of entertainment. As Maarten Peerboom wrote, ‘[a] film in its standard two-hour format… cannot teach us comprehensively about major events’ and ‘[b]ecause of the way we watch and experience movies, even historical movies usually have to focus on a few individuals, and they must, almost out of necessity, fictionalise aspects of the experience.’[17] Stephen Morris, discussing the accuracy of Control acknowledged this point, stating ‘[n]one of it’s true… It’s sort of true, but you have to take liberties when you’re making a film because the truth is too boring’.[18] Using this quote from Morris and influenced by the work of Gilbert B. Rodman, Brian Fauteux highlights that:

it is impossible to accurately retell and represent each and every moment of Joy Division’s musicology. It is necessary to choose from the available documents, interpreting or reinterpreting them in such a way that forms a persuasive aesthetic and narrative, reflecting the popular understanding of the band’.[19] 

Fauteux continues to argue that understanding how cinematic narratives are the result of deliberately choosing events, people and places to focus upon to create a coherent story can help us to understand that the same processes of selection and construction are involved in creating history as known by historians.

‘Have you never heard of situationism or postmodernism? Do you know nothing about the free play of signs and signifiers?’, Coogan/Wilson asks a journalist in 24 Hour Party People when confronted by accusations that Joy Division were a band of Nazi sympathisers. As much as this scene is poking fun at Wilson’s character, the film revels in its postmodernism – in its self-referential pastiche, in its promotion of the uncertainty of narratives and in its knowing depictions of how cinematic narratives are created. 24 Hour Party People is clear that it is, as Leen Engelen describes, ‘making unsteady claims about [its] relation to history’[20] and this is one of the reasons why historians should watch the film (especially in contrast with Control), not particularly for the history that it tells, but what the film tells us about the historical process.

Joy Division as depicted in 24 Hour Party People

Joy Division as depicted in 24 Hour Party People

The falsity of historical authenticity

Film can be an effective, or disruptive, vehicle in shaping ideas about the past, but to articulate the past through film does not mean to recognise it the way it actually was.[21] Historical narratives provided by film can become problematic for our understanding of popular memory, which is portrayed in both Control and 24 Hour Party People, but this problem is embraced by the filmmakers in the latter, while concealed in the former. This raises questions of authenticity. Control attempts to bestow the authority of authenticity upon its narrative of Ian Curtis, perpetuating the iconography of a reserved darkness that continues to surround popular ideas of Joy Division – an iconography that was partly created by Corbijn himself. Corbijn was responsible for the posthumous video for the Joy Division single ‘Atmosphere’, which indulged in heavy gothic symbolism, possibly conveying the song as a post-punk funeral-esque march. Mick Middles described Corbijn’s style, in ‘Atmosphere’ then replicated in Control, as ‘quasi-religious imagery and blackly surreal humour’.[22] But Corbijn’s video seemed to concentrate the tragic figure of Curtis as a substitute for the band Joy Division. As James Nice wrote, ‘the moody monochrome video… seemed to mythologize Ian Curtis, and Curtis alone.’[23] Simon Reynolds highlights the same issue with Corbijn portraying Ian Curtis as a ‘fallen saviour’ in ‘Atmosphere’, ‘where a procession of cowled, monk-like fugures carry a gigantic placard depicting the singer – an outsized religious icon’.[24] For Corbijn, the death of Ian Curtis ­defines his life and his artistic expressions, the whole of Joy Division’s work is interpreted through the ‘palimpsestic narrative’[25] of his suicide. Corbijn admitted this to Paul Morley, saying, ‘It’s like the Bible… You know the end. He dies. So how you tell the story along the way is more important than ever.’[26] But it is contestable as to how this iconography ever related to the ‘real’ Joy Division or how much Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980 retrospectively determined how we view his life and works.

The authenticity of Control relies on Corbijn using the same techniques utilised in the video for ‘Atmosphere’ and indulges in a ‘new realist’ mise en scene, reminiscent of the portrayal of English northern towns in the films of the 1960s and 1970s. The atmosphere of the film is bleak, where Curtis’ actions are only depicted to convey his slow denouement towards death and Curtis’ surroundings Macclesfield and Manchester, is shown in black and white, a post-industrial environment absent of colour – while at the same time, this monochrome look gives a sense of authenticity, appropriating the feel of black and white footage from a slightly bygone era. These visual cues reinforce the narrative of Curtis as a sombre figure of isolation and pre-determined towards death, the authenticity of Control alluding to an image of Curtis constructed by Corbijn’s previous work for Joy Division and Ian Curtis. As one reviewer put it, ‘Corbijn swaps true pathos for mere visual minutiae and emotional shorthand’.[27]

For Corbijn, his use of black and white in Control reflected the media and consumer representations of Joy Division in the 1970s (which was partly a creation by Corbijn himself). In an interview with Paul Morley, Corbijn explained:

Joy Division always seemed black and white. Their record sleeves were in black and white and the way they dressed was not colourful. I can’t even think of a group shot of Joy Division in colour…Your whole memory of Joy Division is through black and white photographs, so the film just had to be in black and white.[28]

But this quest for authenticity highlights a difficulty for historical films attempting to gloss over the gap between historical events and their cinematic portrayal. Neil Davenport wrote ‘Control looks very beautiful’ and ‘newcomer Sam Riley excels as Ian Curtis’, but stated, ‘And yet, no amount of acting guile can prevent Control from being a little too… stagey. At times, the dialogue is too measured to be convincing, the sets too stylised to be authentic, and the mood too one-paced to capture the chaos and turbulence of the period’.[29] This inevitable rupture between the events of the past and the filmmaker’s attempt to reproduce them authentically was recognised by Jean Baudrillard in his seminal text, ‘The Evil Demon of Images’.  Discussing the ‘exact, scrupulous set-pieces’ of films, such as Chinatown, Barry Lyndon and All the President’s Men, Baudrillard declared that their ‘very perfection’ was ‘disturbing’, writing ‘[l]et us be clear: their quality is not in question. The problem is rather that they leave us somehow totally different’.[30] Corbijn’s attempts to recreate or simulate the ‘reality’ of Macclesfield and Manchester in the late 1970s easily slips from ‘realism’ to what Baudrillard called ‘hyperreality’, where what is portrayed has bearing in any reality, past or present. As Baudrillard wrote:

[t]he real does not efface itself in favour of the imaginary; it effaces itself in favour of the more real than real: the hyper-real. The truer than true; this is simulation.[31]

Both Control and 24 Hour Party People portray this ‘hyperreality’, but in Control, this ‘hyperreality’ is concealed, where Sam Riley’s Ian Curtis seems ‘more real than real’, while 24 Hour Party People acknowledges the gap between film and the historical ‘truth’ – the space of the ‘simulacrum’. As Brabazon wrote, the film ‘darted around the simulacrum, playing with punk, acid house, time and narrative’.[32] Baudrillard asserted that the simulacrum referred ‘no longer [to] that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance’ and was model of ‘a real without origin or reality’.[33]

24 Hour Party People, by depicting many of the same events as Control, but in a completely different notion of ‘what actually happened’, demonstrates that there are always alternate versions of narratives and that these narratives have no inherent hierarchy of value or ownership of ‘the truth’. The narrative of film can, thus, never display the historical truth, but can only offer a ‘story’. One of the best examples of the film’s explicit depiction of how narrative and popular memory is contested is Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks appearing as cleaner in the toilets of a club. Previous to Devoto’s appearance, the film depicts Wilson’s wife Lindsay and Devoto, as characters played by Shirley Henderson and Martin Hancock, as having sex in the club’s toilets, which is discovered by Coogan/Wilson. The character of the cleaner, which Devoto is playing, then morphs into the ‘real’ Howard Devoto, who turns to the camera and states, ‘I definitely don’t remember this happening’. The non-diegetic narration[34] of Coogan/Wilson then announces:

This is the real Howard Devoto. He and Lindsay insisted that we make clear that this never happened. But I agree with John Ford – When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend.[35]

The 'real' Howard Devoto interjecting in 24 Hour Party People - filmed in the toilets of Manchester's Jilly's Rockworld before it was closed down

The ‘real’ Howard Devoto interjecting in 24 Hour Party People – filmed in the toilets of Manchester’s Jilly’s Rockworld before it was closed down

This scene not only ‘melts the fourth wall of cinema’, as Brabazon describes it, but disrupts any appeal to the authority of ‘authenticity’ that a certain narrative can have, demonstrating that all narratives are selected and constructed, and always contested. The ‘real’ Tony Wilson appears on the DVD commentary of the film and speaking about this scene, Wilson states:

I do like the line about this isn’t fair… However this didn’t happen either. I think, um, Lindsay took great offence at this scene as well.

What 24 Hour Party People recognises, which Control tries to obscure, is that film cannot depict what actually happened, but can be used to further a certain narrative if desired. But while 24 Hour Party People revels in showing the fissures in popular memory and the creation of historical narratives, it still indulges in appeals to authenticity to convey a sense of time and place.

Winterbottom employed certain techniques, production elements and narrative devices to express a sense of authenticity. This authenticity is conveyed through the recreation of the Haçienda nightclub, the opening credits designed by Central Station Design (the designers of Factory Records’ ‘Madchester’ period, particularly the sleeves of the Happy Monday records), the cameos by Manchester musicians and the archival footage of the Sex Pistols at Free Trades Hall, of Tony Wilson and of news items from the 1970s. Through this use of archival footage, the film, as Nick Redfern argues, ‘strives to create an impression of “being there”, or being part of the Manchester scene… reinforced by the use of library footage to give the film a “contextual” realism.’[36] Redfern illustrates this point by focusing on a particular scene within the film (referred to colloquially as the ‘Derby Hall Riot’ and given an alternative narrative of events in Control), which:

juxtaposes the re-staging of a Joy Division gig that descends into a pitched battle between the band and a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, with Wilson reading the news in the late 1970s over a series of images (the National Front marching in Manchester, fuel shortages, and strikes by public sector workers).[37]

Authenticity in 24 Hour Party People is also communicated through the character of Tony Wilson as an omnipresent figure evidenced through his non-diegetic narration and to-the-camera addresses. In one scene (repeated in the book 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You, with text from the book in square brackets), Wilson claims:

this is not a film about me [this is not my story]. I’m not Prince Hamlet, nor was [ever] meant to be. [This is not a book about me.] I’m a minor character in my own story. [Truly Dickensian hero, bit of a wally, bit of a cipher, surrounded by larger-than-life characters.] This is a film about the music and the people who made the music, Ian Curtis [and] Shaun Ryder and Martin Hannett.[38]

However it is obvious to the viewer that this is not the case – Wilson is the main protagonist and narrator, connecting the various episodes depicted in the film into some form of cohesive narrative. As Macfarlane and Williams write, ‘[t]he rise and fall of Factory is, in this film, largely a matter of his narration’, constructing a story out of events that ‘tended to happen without elaborate casual interconnectedness’.[39] The ‘real’ Tony Wilson acknowledged this in an interview with Spiked Online, ‘I’m in there as the person who ties the two periods – punk and acid – together.’[40] Coogan/Wilson’s homodiegetic account, through his narration and documentary-like addresses to camera, smooth over gaps in the ‘episodic and elliptical narrative’[41] to create a more-or-less linear history, while at the same time, Coogan/Wilson’s narration is often utilised by Winterbottom to undermine any notion of historical cohesion in the film. Simon Reynolds suggests that this dual process, what he describes as the film’s ‘Achilles heel of “negative crossover”’, alienates the audience, contending that those viewers who had ‘absolutely nothing invested in the idea of Joy Division or the whole post-punk era’ would enjoy the film, but ‘to actually follow the film on even a basic narrative level you’d need to know a fair bit about Factory already’.[42] However I would argue that this dual process, where appeals to authenticity and apparent concern about getting ‘the feel’ right are challenged by the film’s conscious breaking of the fourth wall and explicit undermining of established narratives, is the most engaging and rewarding part of viewing 24 Hour Party People.

Joy Division as depicted in Control

Joy Division as depicted in Control

Do facts matter in historical film?

In an interview with David Nolan for the book I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World, a book about the conflicting popular memories of the Sex Pistols’ first Manchester gig at Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June, 1976 (recreated in Control and 24 Hour Party People), Tony Wilson said about the latter film, ‘A lot of the movie’s not real, you can be unreal’.[43] (My emphasis)  And this raises an important question – do facts matter in historical film, especially in a film like 24 Hour Party People? Many have criticised modern conventional cinema for its dependence upon invention to create incident, plot and character and its sacrifice of facts for the purpose of the cinematic experience. Robert A. Rosenstone acknowledges this criticism has dominated the discourse on the relationship between films and history.[44] But this criticism is, in essence, a misnomer. The ‘realism’ of a film’s narrative is always problematic and debates over a film’s content can detract from a basic historical premise. That is that film, even if it was entirely ‘factual’, can never replicate the historical ‘truth’.

Like the criticism for the explicit indulgence in urban myths and postmodern revelry in 24 Hour Party People, criticisms of cinema, like that made by Siegfried Kracauer, for  filmic attempts of ‘realism’ – ‘because the past they try to resurrect no longer exists’[45] – seems to miss this important point. As Osip Brik wrote about Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film October, ‘every departure from historical fact is permissible… where it has been developed to the level of the grotesque and the extent of its correspondence to any reality is no longer relevant’.[46] The same sentiment is expressed by Rob Brydon, who played a local music journalist in 24 Hour Party People, who said in an interview with Paul Morley for The Guardian:

I’m sure there will be people like you saying this is wrong, that’s wrong, that wouldn’t have happened then… but in the end it’s not about the period detail, it’s about getting the [chosen] spirit across.[47]

In traditional film theory, the creation of a cinematic narrative that allows the audience to suspend their disbelief requires the audience to ‘forget’ the limits of the cinematic experience and accept the notion of film as a ‘true’ visual representation of events. Recognising the limits of the cinematic experience, such as breaking the fourth wall or acknowledging the film-making process, would ruin the enjoyment of the film for the audience. With 24 Hour Party People, recognition of the limits of the film to portray ‘what actually happened’ and the film’s explicit discussion of how the film is constructed is, I would argue, a significant part of the film’s appeal and why the film is such an interesting source for historians interested in film, contemporary history and popular culture.

The difference in how individuals or groups perceive the same events is indicated in both Control and 24 Hour Party People, who seek to cover a similar historical period in very different ways. Winterbottom and Cottrell Bryce make this very apparent in their film, while Corbijn’s film seeks to underplay this obvious point. Peter Hook recognised this in an interview with Paul Morley:

‘The whole beauty of the story,’ says Hooky, ‘is that everyone remembers everything differently. Everyone has a different memory of what happened. Not that anyone is right or wrong, you just saw it from a different point of view,… What Anton [Corbijn] has done is make the story from his memories of how he felt at the time…’[48]

The 'real' Tony Wilson and Steve Coogan

The ‘real’ Tony Wilson and Steve Coogan

A review in the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine said, ‘Future generations curious about 1980s and 1990s dance culture could do worse than take in a double bill of 24 Hour Party People (2004) and Party Monster’.[49] Ty Burr, in a review of Control for The Boston Globe, wrote, ‘[w]hen he [Sam Riley as Ian Curtis] launches into “Transmission,” though, you feel as if you’re sampling a secret history;… and they [the actors as Joy Division] successfully re-create that spare, unyielding wall of gloom’.[50] However we should be wary about our understanding of the history of the Manchester music scene, of Joy Division, of the Haçienda, being informed by films such as 24 Hour Party People or Control, recognising that there is a irreconcilable disconnect between the historical event and its cinematic recreation. These films represent a simulacrum and Baudrillard warns us of the simulacrum’s allure, stating, ‘It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real’.[51] Film can construct narratives based on history, but it cannot show us the past and we should not substitute one for the other.

The two films discussed provide a wonderful opportunity to analyse how films create historical narratives and how past events can be interpreted in very different ways. By comparing the films together, we can see that both recreate the same events with widely varying narrative details and it is the onus of the audience to discern which one (if any) is more ‘authentic’ or ‘true’. As mentioned before, this appeal to authenticity is made by both films, but Control’s reliance on black-and-white realism conveys a greater endeavour to depict the film as ‘what actually happened’, while 24 Hour Party People undercuts any appeals to authenticity with its openness about its selection of what narratives it employs and the points of contention within competing popular memories of the era. The latter makes candid reference to the fact that it is interested in creating stories about the contemporary past, while the former conceals its construction and what it seeks to communicate with the audience. The divergence between the approaches of the film make them a particularly fascinating case study for historians interested in the use of film in contemporary history and the history of British popular culture. As Peter Burke wrote, ‘cinematic (or indeed literary) techniques… may be used in a superficial way, to dazzle rather than to illuminate, but they may also help historians [understand] their difficult task of revealing the relationship between events and structures and presenting multiple viewpoints.’[52]

Stiff Kittens (later Warsaw, then Joy Division, then finally New Order) as depicted in 24 Hour Party People at the infamous 4 June, 1976 Sex Pistols gig

Stiff Kittens (later Warsaw, then Joy Division, then finally New Order) as depicted in 24 Hour Party People at the infamous 4 June, 1976 Sex Pistols gig


[1] Deborah Curtis, Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis & Joy Division, Faber & Faber, London, 2001

[2] Tara Brabazon, From Revolution to Revelation: Generation X, Popular Memory and Cultural Studies, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2004, p. 139

[3] T. Brabazon, From Revolution to Revelation, p. 151

[4] T. Brabazon, From Revolution to Revelation, p. 155

[5] Cited in, Paul Morley, Joy Division: Piece by Piece – Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007, Plexus, London, 2008, p. 349

[6] Stephen Morris, as cited in, ‘Torn Apart: The Legend of Joy Division’, Record Collector, 342, November 2007, p. 31

[7] Morris in ‘Torn Apart’, p. 31

[8] James Nice, Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records (Aurum, London, 2010), p. 494

[9] J. Nice, Shadowplayers, p. 494

[10] Simon Reynolds, Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews, Faber and Faber, London, 2009, p. 361

[11] Neil Young, ‘Dream Factory: 24 Hour Party People’, Critical Quarterly, 44/3, p. 82

[12] N. Young, ‘Dream Factory’, p. 82

[13] T. Brabazon, From Revolution to Revelation, p. 151

[14] Mick Middles, Factory: The Story of the Record Label, Virgin Books, London, 2009, p. 413

[15] Lindsay Reade, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis, Omnibus Press, London, 2009,  p. 281

Tony Wilson said in an interview with Simon Reynolds, ‘Most of the things in the film never happened. But the miracle of the film is that it’s a complete bunch of lies, but it tells the truth’. Cited in, S. Reynolds, Totally Wired, p. 69

[16] William Guynn, Writing History in Film, Routledge, London, 2006, p. 3

[17] Maarten Peerboom, History and Film Moving Pictures and the Study of the Past, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2010, p. 11

[18] Cited in, ‘Joy Division Biopic “Not True” Say Band’, NME.com, 29 June, 2007, http://www.nme.com/news/joy-division/29343, accessed 21 September, 2010

[19] Brian Fauteux, ‘Television, Live Transmission: Control and the Televised Performance Scene’, Cinephile, 5/2, Summer 2009, pp. 26-27

[20] Leen Engelen, ‘Back to the Future, Ahead to the Past. Film and History: A Status Quaestionis’, Rethinking History, 11/4, December 2007, p. 561

[21] Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1989, p. 196; p. 180

[22] M. Middles, Factory, p. 412

[23] J. Nice, Shadowplayers, p.360

[24] S. Reynolds, Totally Wired, p. 362

[25] This is a phrase borrowed from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, albeit in a much different context. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988, p. 281

[26] Cited in, P. Morley, Joy Division, p. 348-49

[27] L.D. Beghtol, ‘Ian Curtis Biopic Gets Manchester Right… and That’s About It’, Village Voice, 2 October, 2007, http://www.viallagevoice.com/content/print/Version/211505, accessed 7 September, 2010

[28] Cited in, P. Morley, Joy Division, p. 353

[29] Neil Davenport, ‘A Joyless Depiction of the Post-Punk Era’, Spiked Online, 8 October, 2007, http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/printable/3943/, accessed 20 May, 2010

[30] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Evil Demon of Images’, in Steve Redhead (ed.), The Jean Baudrillard Reader, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008, pp. 95-96

[31] Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge, Semiotext(e), New York, 1990, p. 11

[32] Tara Brabazon, “‘What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?’ The Office, (Post) Reality Television and (Post) Work’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8/1, 2005, p. 102

[33] Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Mark Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 166

[34] The concepts of diegesis and diegetic/non-diegetic narration are explained in Alun Munslow, Narrative and History, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, 2007, pp. 47-50

[35] However even this quote shows the slipperiness of popular memory. The actual line from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is ‘’w]hen the legend becomes fact, print the legend’, which seems to suggest that the transition of popular myths into accepted ‘fact’ is a much more organic phenomenon, rather than the conscious choice between ‘the truth’ or  ‘the legend’ as proposed by Coogan/Wilson.

[36] Nick Redfern, ‘“We Do Things Differently Here”: Manchester as a Cultural Region in 24 Hour Party People’, EnterText, 5/2, Autumn/Winter 2005, p. 294

[37] N. Redfern, ‘“We Do Things Differently Here”, pp. 294-295

[38] T. Wilson, 24 Hour Party People, p. 228

[39] B. Macfarlane & D. Williams, Michael Winterbottom, p. 90

[40] Cited in, Brendan O’Neill, ‘F*** the Truth, It’s the Legend that Counts’, Spiked Online, 13 August, 2007, http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/3720, accessed on 9 September, 2010

[41] B. Macfarlane & D. Williams, Michael Winterbottom, p. 90

[42] S. Reynolds, Totally Wired,  p. 361

[43] Cited in, David Nolan, I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World, Independent Music Press, Church Stretton, 2006, p. 164

[44] Robert A. Rosenstone (ed.), Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 6

[45] S. Kracauer Theory of Film, p. 78

[46] Osip Brik, ‘October’, in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods: An Anthology, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1976, p. 19

[47] Cited in, Paul Morley, ‘Shooting the Past’, The Guardian, 23 February, 2001

[48] Cited in, P. Morley, Joy Division, p. 358

[49] ‘Party Monster’, Sight & Sound, November 2003, http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/1155, accessed 12 October, 2010

[50] Ty Burr, ‘Joy Division’s Inner Sadness: “Control” A Moving Portrait of ‘70s Post-Punk Pioneers’, The Boston Globe, 26 October, 2007, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2007/10/26/joy_divisions_inner_sadness/, accessed 13 October, 2010

[51] J. Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, p. 167

[52] Peter Burke, ‘History of Events and the Revival of Narrative’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1992, p. 246

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for a most interesting comparison and analysis.

    It does seem that the Control project reflected too much Corbijn’s view of the band, as appeared in his quasi-religious, grim-up-North video for Atmosphere. I certainly feel that in making the film so drab and ‘realistic’ a document, both in terms of style and content, Corbijn limited what the audience could learn about Joy Division and their subsequent impact on music and culture. (I recall Owen Hatherley referred to Control as “that misbegotten combination of rock myth and kitchen sink”.)

    On the other hand, 24 Hour Party People arguably builds on (often vague and as you say, “contested”) mythology that was already there, as well as, playfully, further creating some trhough it’s use of broader cinematic devices. The post-1980 mythologising and fetishisation of both Curtis’s life and of the Manchester music scene are a crucial part of the story – and whether influenced by Carry On or otherwise, it seems Winterbottom and Cottrell Bryce were instinctively aware of this.

    Personally, Grant Gee’s Joy Division is the contemporary film that struck a chord with my feelings and curiosities in relation to the band and its music. And, actually, whilst it’s a documentary, I absorb it as more of a narrative film, as opposed to a factual/historic piece of cinema.

  2. David, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I like Gee’s documentary, but including that in my analysis would’ve been too much, I reckon.

    I’m interested in Owen Hatherley’s comment. Do you know where he said that?

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