40 years after the death of Ian Curtis, Tom Jolliffe looks at the impact of Joy Division in cinema and TV…
There have been a few big anniversaries of late. 40 years since Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back was released. 40 years since The Shining came out too. On a more sombre note it’s also been 40 years since the death of Ian Curtis brought an end the all too fleeting musical brilliance of Joy Division. The remaining band members would go off to form New Order and find a great deal of success there, but for two albums (and a smattering of other cobbled works), Joy Division was a key movement in the UK music industry. Post-punk and prior to a more pop centred new romantic explosion (and hair metal).
Something about the work of the band, and Ian Curtis’ voice of aching melancholy really tells a story. It’s haunting and soulful and a kind of (skilled) rough around the edges delivery from the entire band gave them a purity of imperfectness. Of course as a band the legacy has travelled the world, but it would be fair to say that the band is to the Brits, what Nirvana is to the Americans. Likewise, more so than even Nirvana, the catalogue of Curtis’ song lyrics (combined with his delivery) shine a light on some of the darkness he existed in. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re almost suicide notes, but the pain is there and laid out.
Given the music is so evocative and emotive and raw, it tells a story. As such, something about the music has translated extremely well into cinema. To look at Curtis’ IMDb page that much becomes evident. Some 97 credits (and I’m sure the songs appeared in more than are actually listed) where Joy Division’s music was used films and TV. Not so surprisingly, the predominant choice of song tends to be their most iconic, and their ‘lightest’ song, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Curtis himself has been portrayed on screen in a couple of films such as Control (a biopic with Sam Riley as Curtis) and 24 Hour Party People (with Sean Harris as Curtis). Those particular examples of course had a number of tracks.
Something about the appearance of a Joy Division track seems to stand out for me. ‘New Dawn Fades’ is used memorably in Heat, with Pacino tracking down De Niro through Highway traffic. It was a cover by Moby, but their re-imagining of the original riffs was atmospheric and effective. Their work was also covered in The Crow by Nine Inch Nails, an even grungier version of ‘Dead Souls’ (but the lyrics and riffs of which suited the themes of the film so much). Still, to hear the originals within a film or TV show works even better.
Aside from some welcome use in films like The Equalizer, Donnie Darko (which in general had a great soundtrack), and again with Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, the TV world has made some effective use of Joy Division tracks. Stranger Things stood out for me. A show with an all round epic soundtrack listing from episode to episode, season to season, using a particularly evocative track like Atmosphere to brilliant effect in Season 1. Likewise, American Horror Story (a show of dark subjects and tone, a good fit) used a couple of tracks in a couple of episodes as did the apt 13 Reasons Why.
Soundtracks can really help to elevate the mood of a film in key scenes. It would seem that those tracks of deep emotional resonance seem to work well. I guess some music supervisors still get drawn to greatest hits (like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apar’t), but going forward in the next 40 years, cinema (and TV) will continue to make use of Joy Division’s music in their films, bringing to life scenes that need an extra hit of emotion and anguish. Interestingly too, it’s often the case that people ‘discover’ music from films. Look at a track on YouTube for a lot of older artists and there’s often a comment like, ‘The Crow brought me here…’
What is your favourite Joy Division track? Favourite use of one of their tracks in film or TV? Let us know in the comments or on social media @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.