Publications > From the End to the Beginning: The Joy Division Films by Jamie Holman < Joy Division film documentary < Joy Division

Ian Curtis - Ikon Video (© Malcolm Whitehead)
Ian Curtis - Ikon Video (© Malcolm Whitehead)
Ian Curtis - Ikon Video (© Malcolm Whitehead)
Ian Curtis - Ikon Video (© Malcolm Whitehead)
Ian Curtis - Ikon Video (© Malcolm Whitehead)
Ian Curtis - Ikon Video (© Malcolm Whitehead)

From the End to the Beginning: The Joy Division Films
Jamie Holman
[This article first appeared in Issue 02 of Art & Music Magazine]

In the ABC / dot-to-dot / colouring-book version of post-punk, Malcolm McLaren tells us that everyone picked up an instrument and changed the world. What is often overlooked is the surge of fringe creativity that emerged in the wake of The Pistols et al. Some picked up guitars (Joy Division, Buzzcocks) some picked up pens (Mark Perry with Sniffin' Glue and Jon Savage with London's Outrage), but one man in Manchester picked up a Super 8 camera and made a film. That film now exists as part of a wider study of its subject, Grant Gee's documentary Joy Division.

The official synopsis for Joy Division reads:

On June 4 1976, four young men from ruined, post-industrial Manchester, England, went to see a Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. Inspired by the gig that is now credited with igniting the Manchester music scene, they formed what was to become one of the world's most influential bands, Joy Division.

Now, thirty years later, despite a tragedy that was to cut them off in their prime, they are enjoying a larger audience and more influence than ever before, with a profound legacy that resonates fiercely in today's heavily manufactured pop culture. Featuring the unprecedented participation of all the surviving band members (now known as New Order), Joy Division examines the band's story as depicted through never-before-seen live performance footage, personal photos, period films and newly discovered audiotapes.

With poignant narratives from Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, as well as accounts from Throbbing Gristle musician Genesis P. Orridge, late legendary Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, iconic Factory Records graphic artist Peter Saville, photographer / filmmaker Anton Corbijn, Belgian journalist Annik Honoré (speaking for the first time about her relationship with Ian Curtis) and others, the film is a fresh visual account of a unique time and place.

From director Grant Gee and producers Tom Atencio, Tom Astor and Jacqui Edenbrow, Joy Division chronicles a time of great social and political change in England and tells the untold story of four men who transcended economic and cultural barriers to produce an enduring musical legacy.

But there is another story - the story of a film within a film. A film in which Joy Division appear as themselves, or as us, or as what we wanted to be, while outside Manchester looms, cold and decrepit, unrecognisable to the tourists on the Factory Records bus tour. This is the lost Manchester of Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson and Martin Hannett, and like them it is lost to us - a memory caught on film. Most importantly, however, this is the Manchester of Malcolm Whitehead, film-maker, Ikon Video maverick, and for years the recording eye of The Hacienda.

In an interview filmed for the new documentary, Malcolm describes Joy Division as 'the resistance' fighting against an outside world bringing war - a war on the soul, led by Thatcher and commanded in Manchester by Police Chief James Anderton. Whitehead's film juxtaposes sequences of the city with adverts from the time, TV soundtracks and snatches of audio lifted from the Nuremberg rallies, cutting it all up with Joy Division playing live in Super 8 colour at Bowden Vale Youth Club, Altrincham.

It is this juxtaposition that is at the heart of the film, the collision of the changing world around the lens and the band in front. It creates a tension that is tangible even now, thirty years on. The film captures a band approaching the peak of their powers and presents a time-capsule aesthetic of band and city - both gone forever; both as they were but not how they are remembered, the city colder and the band more human than posterity records.

It's an incredible piece of work, and although it has been treated with great respect by Jon Savage and the production team of Joy Division, legal issues dictate that you will never see the film as it was originally intended. But it was not always so...

Jamie Holman: How did your film come about?

Malcolm Whitehead: It happened because I was already friends with Rob [Gretton] from working at the airport and later when he was a DJ at Rafters. I used to go and watch bands down there and Rob ended up managing a band called The Panik. I was just starting out as a film-maker then, self-taught, 8-mm stuff.

And we started a film that didn't really come to much. The Panik at the Last Night of the Electric Circus. It was really dark and the footage looked shit. It got left. Then Rob rang me up and said, I'm managing this new band called Warsaw and did I want to go and see them at The Factory.

I went to see them at the old Russell Club and they were absolutely amazing; they sent a shiver down my spine. I wanted to do something with them there and then. I went to see a guy who ran the local record shop and told him about Bowden Vale club in Altrincham, where I'd seen tons of bands in 1963-4, and said he should put bands on again.

Later I introduced him to Rob, who had loads and loads of the band's first EP left over. They were skint, so they sold them to the record-shop guy and he put them on at Bowden Vale. And that's what I wanted all along you see, as I wanted to film the band. So I hired some scaffolding and some gear and did it.

JH: What did you shoot it on?

MW: Well the whole thing cost seventy-two quid, which I thought was fucking outrageous. (Laughs.) I shot it on a cheap Hannimex movie camera, the first camera I owned. I used an Agfa film they brought out at the time which had a sound stripe on, but it came in a silent cartridge and you added the sound after on the projector. So I shot it silent and recorded the sound on a reel-to-reel. You were supposed to synch it up later but it didn't fucking work! I shot it at twenty-four frames a second but it only worked at eighteen.

I didn't find out till later! I shot it with one camera and I only had enough money for three cartridges. About nine minutes. I filmed two and a half songs outright and then shot cutaways and tried not to get instruments so I could drop them in as inserts over what I'd shot. So I had the three cartridges and a reel-to-reel of the whole gig. I had also already started the other parts of the film before the gig.

JH: That's the technical stuff about the performance. But what does the whole film mean? What were you trying to do?

MW: It starts with 'New Dawn Fades'. You know that's the track playing, and it signifies this new dawn of fascism with James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Manchester at that time. He was a precursor of Thatcher in that he was very right wing, ultra-right, religious and wanted to clamp down on youth.

So the film moves from 'New Dawn Fades' into the Nazi stuff. But it wasn't a new dawn, it was a return to the past. You hear speeches by Adolf Hitler mixed in with Anderton talking about penal work camps in an interview he did with Tony Wilson, funnily enough. He was saying stuff like, 'They will be made to work like they have never worked before,' and that leads to a montage of adverts and central Manchester street scenes. This is Consumerism - the New Fascism! At this point it was on a local level, but it felt like there was some bad shit going on and it would become bigger.

So you've got this law and order, this corporate fascism, and then I cut to the band in the rehearsal rooms. It looks great, really underground. You know, underground in the political sense, like the French underground. But this was a cultural underground. They were the resistance against all this stuff outside.

JH: What was it about Joy Division?

MW: They were just so bloody powerful. I just new they were going to be massive. There was no reason to think that really, there were only about ten people at the Factory Club. I couldn't believe it. I just new that this was the new thing. This was it. They were just so much more than what punk had already become, which was just to replace the pub-rock bands really. This was a bigger thing and was artistically more meaningful than punk. For me, anyway.

JH: What happened with the film when it was edited and synched up?

MW: It was first shown at the old Scala cinema in London - a proper cinema!

JH: What was the reaction to it?

MW: Well, they did three showings over a day, and each one was packed; rounds of applause and everything, which was weird as I'd never shown a film in public. It was really exciting.

JH: Where else was it shown?

MW: Well, a bloke rang me up from Berlin, and, honestly, I was so innocent then I sent him the actual film. You couldn't make decent copies. So it went to Berlin, and they were queuing round the block to watch it. They played it and played it, god knows how many showings they did. Luckily I'd swamped it in film preserver and scratch resister. There were a couple of knackered perforations when I got it back, but it wasn't too bad. In fact, it didn't cause real problems till fairly recently when I restored it with Brian Nicholson [long-time Ikon associate, 'confidante and conspirator'; 'keeper of what some call an archive'].

JH: Is there any footage or soundtrack left that didn't go into the film?

MW: There's the whole audio of the gig, except 'New Dawn Fades' as I was just doing the levels at that point. There's also an attempted interview that went crap as they wouldn't speak! So I jacked that in as the film was so expensive and you don't waste it. There's also about half an hour of rehearsal-room audio. I also interviewed Rob at my flat. That's on a cassette, thirty minutes I think.

JH: Did the band see it?

MW: Ian loved it; the rest of the band didn't really get it. They went downstairs to talk to a mate of mine, but Ian stayed and after said he got it and thought it was great, and that meant a lot as it was Ian I wanted the nod off. When it was transferred to video we showed it a few times, at gigs - A Certain Ratio - and the first transfer, which is crap, is the bootleg you see on the net. It's really crap, that copy, and only features the Joy Division performance.

JH: Why did it never come out on Factory or Ikon? Why isn't it on Here Are the Young Men?

MW: Well, this was my film. It wasn't a Joy Division film in that sense. It was my film and I never thought of it as being finished; it was going to be a lot longer. And there was a problem with the Nazi stuff. The band were sick to death of it, and I wouldn't take it off. It meant something. They were fed up with being tarnished with the fascist thing. But they weren't, you know. The name suggests what they really were, anti-fascist. And then it wasn't discussed for twenty odd years.

JH: So who owns it now?

MW: Cherry Red Records bought it. I mean, I don't care who owns it, I just wanted it restoring properly.

JH: Who restored it?

MW: Me and Brian Nicholson. Me and Brian have worked as a film-making partnership for twenty-six years. He got it restored and transferred at Granada television, and I re-edited it and extended it to a full three songs.

JH: Will you ever get rid of Joy Division, and move on?

MW: Well, I've felt the responsibility over the years, and I hope I can hand all the other stuff over and pass that on. And with the release of the new documentary at least I know some of it is finally being seen, and that there's a decent re-mastered copy knocking about.

Jon Savage is the writer of the Grant Gee's Joy Division. Cambridge-educated author, broadcaster and music journalist, Savage wrote and published the punk organ London's Outrage in 1976, and in 1977 began working as a journalist for Sounds. He has also written for The Face, Observer, New Statesman, Mojo and the Observer Music Monthly. Jon has also authored several landmark books on music, including Time Travel: Pop, Media and Sexuality 1976-1996, The Faber Book of Pop (with Hanif Kureishi), The Hacienda Must Be Built, the official Kinks biography, and the peerless England's Dreaming. Jon's latest book, Teenage, was published by Chatto & Windus in April 2007.

JH: The film isn't afraid to be intellectual, whereas most documentaries are just a cut-and-paste hatchet job by a YTS researcher who has never heard of the band they are profiling. Has rock music in general been well served by the documentary form?

JS: The film contains ideas because Joy Division contained ideas. Simple as that. We very much wanted to get back to the feel of the time, without the usual post-Factory smear of Happy Mondays and 24 Hour Party People. I'm not sure why so many bright if not over-educated people are afraid of their own intelligence, but that's British culture at present. The whole point of punk and post-punk was that it allowed autodidacts like John Lydon, Ian Curtis and Mark E. Smith to shine.

There are some great rock docs - hmmm, 'scuse me while I rack my brains to think of one, having said that - but there is also a cookie-cutter approach which just slams footage down over cracker-barrel interviews. With Jools Holland and Elvis Costello appearing at every possible opportunity. Oh no, I don't think so. I'm manic about storyline and was lucky with the director Grant Gee, who did a fantastic job of interviewing key people like Terry Mason and Peter Saville, and then working out a great visual style to make the film a film.

We went on many night drives around Manchester, as we did back in the day, which occasioned some happy accidents - like when we found an aircraft fuselage in a warehouse car park. Grant also projected the Super 8s onto buildings from the car and re-filmed the moving image. So Malcolm Whitehead's Joy Division and Charles Salem's No City Fun really helped us in the style of the documentary.

JH: Does it matter that there is such a paucity of Joy Division footage?

JS: No. It makes things more interesting. Every second is precious. Apart from Malcolm's rehearsal-room footage, the great excitement was when he turned up the Plan K gig on VHS. We couldn't use that much of it because the sound is so brutal.

JH: Does Malcolm's film reflect 1979 well? JS: Yes. It certainly helped us a great deal in setting the mood of the documentary. It captures the mood of impending doom, or as Malcolm says in the documentary 'bad moon rising': Thatcher, Anderton, etc. The Bowdon Vale footage is just great, as is the rehearsal-room stuff, especially the candid shots of the band. Ian actually smiling, and looking very young.

JH: The whole Joy Division story and indeed that of New Order and Factory is concerned with struggle. Is struggle an important aspect of rock music?

JS: Well, I think the struggle to articulate what you want to say, get it out to people and then become better is part of any artistic endeavour. Hard work. Joy Division worked very hard. As did Rob Gretton: his notebooks - which will be published in a book soon - are quite extraordinary for the way that Rob envisioned the band's career and the level of detail that he put into the day-to-day running of the operation.

JH: Why do the band endure? I don't believe that it's purely down to the cult of Ian Curtis. What is it about this band that still captivates thirty years on?

JS: They rocked, so hard. British rock music is a huge misrepresentation because, by and large, it does not rock. The Libertines, for example - they just go oompah oompah, that refried music-hall/ Kinks stuff. Joy Division make you want to do all the bad things that, say, Raw Power made you want to do. They were really intense, physical, brutal, futuristic, poetic and highly emotional.

I had to walk out of their last show at The Factory because it was all too much. Ian gave everything of himself in every show. Then there is the great story, which has been turned into soap opera. Then there is the fact that they were self-motivated and that they lived in a place and a time that was not so mediated. They finished just at the start of the great youth-media explosion.

JH: Is that everything? Can Joy Division be put to rest, or is there more material out there?

JS: I think if there's anything major visually it would have been found, but you can only hope. There are the live gigs, which might come out at some point, plus a proper DVD that collects all the known footage.

JH: Just as the remaining three reconcile their past on celluloid (and they are all superb in the film) it seems that they finally bring the curtain down on New Order. Would you be interested in picking up where the Joy Division film finishes and embark on a New Order documentary?

JS: No, that would be for someone else.

JH: Will we see their like again?

JS: Probably not, which is why people are still excited by them now. This excitement is still evident in every interview, including those with the band; every clip of Joy Division playing will raise the hairs on even the most jaded neck. It is this that separates Joy Division from the awkward art house shapes Control throws, or the Coronation street capers of 24 Hour Party People. As Wilson states in the film, there is distance travelled from punk's battle cry of "Fuck Off" to the articulated angst of "I'm Fucked," and you feel the leap watching Ian Curtis perform.

Later of course others would declare "I'm Fucked up" or as most will tell it, "I'm E'd Up" and all that went before is swallowed in Madchester/Gunchester/Monday's thuggery. Joy Division, casts the net wider and gives a voice to those who were there; Malcolm, Annik Honoré, Terry mason and others. Those who contributed and have been written out or just never spoke before. Those who don't sit comfortably in the Keith Allen boy's club version of what happened next. After the Joy Division film, Whitehead formed Ikon and worked alongside Factory Records, New Order and later in The Hacienda nerve centre, recording, filming, scheming and dreaming.

There are tales of U-Matic editing in the basement of Wilson's house, the much missed Claude Bessy talking turkey, live New Order in unseen glory, Burroughs reading in the nightclub, and Madonna asleep on a step.

But these are parts of a different story, and that's the best thing about Grant Gee's film. It concentrates on that most beautiful of bands without distraction; and for a brief time we see them through Malcolm's eyes once more.

When they were young men.

When they were the resistance.

© Jamie Holman


With many thanks to Jamie Holman, Brian Nicholson, Malcolm Whitehead and Art & Music Magazine.