Without any A-list stars or red-carpet posing, one of the hottest titles to emerge from the recent Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) was music documentary Joy Division, which had its world premiere in Tiff's Real to Reel section (Endeavor is handling North American sales while Katapult is handling international).
The band's story could have been old news given that Anton Corbijn's Cannes hit Control is about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, but the documentary team brought a fresh, modern approach to the inspiring, and tragic, story of the 1970s post-punk band.
Brighton-based director Grant Gee, who previously made 1998 Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy, was clearly passionate about his subject.
"I first heard Joy Division when I was 15 or 16, just going through that teenage change of consciousness," he recalls. "And Joy Division was that transitional band for me."
Gee was recruited especially for the project by Hudson Productions. Los Angeles-based Tom Atencio and his London-based partner Tom Astor had the idea to make a film about Joy Division, since Atencio is a music business veteran who has managed New Order (the band formed by surviving Joy Division members). Also on board for the production was Jacqui Edenbrow of London-based Brown Owl Films, who brought on board ace researcher Ed Webb-Ingall.
"We knew we'd have a great challenge here of not having a large amount of assets and some of the principles are missing in action, so you can't even interview all of them," Atencio says of the project's initial challenges. "So we needed someone who was more painterly in their approach than a strict documentarian. Grant was really a gift. He's a very intelligent film-maker who was also passionate about the project."
Gee himself worked on the film for only a year. Music journalist and expert Jon Savage guided Gee through some initial ideas and Atencio helped with access to New Order members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris.
Gee is well known for his artistic music videos (for the likes of Radiohead, Coldplay and Blur) and he makes creative use of text, animation and images in the documentary. With Joy Division, he manages to bring viewers into the unique world of Manchester 1976 as well as to point out Joy Division's relevance to today's iPod generation.
"My natural tendency is to pull apart the story," Gee says. He also did not want to focus too much on the salacious bit of Curtis' suicide, nor forget the inspiration and energy of the entire band and the music they created.
"The story of Ian Curtis as a martyr is the film's black hole. One of the things I'm most pleased about is that we managed not to let 50 minutes of the film get sucked into that black hole," he says.
Gee says that he is not ruling out future music-related projects, and would love to make a film with Neil Young.
He is now set to make The Western Lands, a film about landscapes to be narrated by writer and rock climber Jim Perrin. Gee already has a 10-minute trailer prepared and the project has development funding from the Arts Council of England.