Friday 31 October 2014

Joy Division: Torn apart by the music

In the new film about Joy Division, JAMES ANTHONY PEARSON plays Bernard Sumner. He reveals how it took over his life

Published 28/09/2007 | 10:36

"Open your mouth more at the end of sentences." "Stand like this; Bernard [Sumner] always stood like this." Anton Corbijn has his hands thrust in his pockets as he demonstrates how he wants me to stand.

In a different tone this kind of direction could feel imposing, but coming from Anton, with his soft Dutch accent and polite manner, it's surprisingly easy. He takes a quick Polaroid in this ultra-ordinary office building with low ceilings and strip-lighting, and somehow he makes it look special. When he asks if I can play the guitar I answer "yes", without hesitation. I figure a little white lie can't possibly hurt anyone.

When the offer of a part in the film about Joy Division, Control, comes through, the excitement of having landed my first feature is swiftly replaced by a rising panic at having to learn to play guitar.

It's a mammoth task trying to cram years of practice and muscle memory into a couple of weeks. But no sooner have the first calluses arrived on my fingertips than everything goes quiet. I resign myself to the fact that the film has faded away like so many other British films.

It takes another three months before the news comes that all the troubles have been fixed and I'm required for band practice in Nottingham. I'm soon in a studio with three other actors, a guitar strapped to my front. The remit is just to look as if we are playing live, but merely getting the guitar strap to sit at the right height takes about half an hour. I feel like a total imposter. My hands don't work, the guitar is chronically out of tune, and the one song I'd made a half-decent stab at on my borrowed bashed-up Fender has just been cut.

For the next few weeks I can think of nothing else other than being part of a band. It's crushingly intense. We split our days between casual rehearsals with Anton and locking ourselves in the band-room and thrashing out music.

Salvation is in the form of Liam Maloy, a music expert from Nottingham University, who gives us everything he knows about Joy Division and the post-punk era. The music is about an energy more than anything else; much more than playing the correct notes in the correct order. If you listen to Joy Division's early live stuff you can hear them make loads of mistakes, and this is all part of the rawness that people find so captivating.

From day one we call each other by our band names - Hooky [Peter Hook], Barny [Sumner], Morris [Stephen] and Ian - which starts off as a joke but ends up being impossible to shake. We have a collective goal that we each feel duty-bound to deliver, and this cements us as a group.But it's also gruelling. When your fingers are so fatigued that they go into spasms and stop working, or the same mistake happens time after time, or a song seems totally unachievable, it's really hard to keep going.

A perk of the job takes us to Liverpool to meet New Order (the band that rose from Joy Division following the suicide of Curtis) and watch them play live. The journey feels like an end-of-term school trip. We go backstage to meet the band and I'm introduced to Bernard, which is surreal. I feel like a limited-edition Barbie doll.

Suddenly my insecurities bubble to the surface and I wonder what the hell Bernard must think of me. But he's a very professional and sound man, with other things to worry about, and we share a drink.

It surprises me how attached I feel to the music. I knew very little of Joy Division and New Order before embarking on this project, but now I feel like their biggest fan. They're onstage playing "Love Will Tear Us Apart" - Bernard now sharing the vocals with the crowd - and it feels so sad to hear it without Ian Curtis. It brings home the truthfulness of the story.

Our first gig comes a couple of weeks into filming, and 200 extras arrive to form the crowd. Anton wants us to play all of the music ourselves for the live gig scenes, which is hugely gratifying, but adds to the pressure. It also means a master of each song has to be made before we come to film it, so there are last-minute rehearsals and recordings in make-shift studios.

And now we actually have to play for the crowd, most of them hardcore Joy Division fans who have driven all the way from Manchester for the privilege of being a part of the film. One 19-year-old girl has a Factory Records tattoo on her shoulder, which is amazing considering she wasn't born until well after Joy Division ceased to exist. Another guy at the front shouts up to us that he saw Joy Division play live twice, and then he proudly shows off Ian Curtis's face tattooed to his pec. I feel sick. Sam is sick.

We play "She's Lost Control", and it takes huge restraint to keep the song from running away with itself. It's like being on the edge of a panic attack. In all this time the energy of the crowd is something I've completely forgotten to consider, and it is thrilling. There is no need to act anything. For three beautiful, awesome minutes it's like the real thing.

Then we cut, the magic breaks, and we're reminded of the job at hand. We're not Joy Division and never will be. But I feel so privileged to have had a glimpse at what it must have been like. It takes many more camera angles playing the same song before the scene is complete, and by the end of the day we're all ready for a break. As we leave the stage, the guy with the tattoo is still at the front playing his part in the story.

He gives us the thumbs up.

'Control' opens on 5 October

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