I spoke in a recent episode of the podcast about a time when I interviewed the great Anton Corbijn ahead of the release of his movie control. It was a piece that had been commissioned by The Listener. In the time between accepting the assignment and delivering to deadline the Arts Editor had quit, his (temp) replacement seemed to have no idea what to do with the Corbijn profile. It was down from 1200 to 800 words, The Listener chopped it down further, about 500 words from memory. A garbled nonsense. A great shame – I had enjoyed a 20 minute conversation with legendary photographer, music video director and filmmaker – he was blown away that I mentioned his 9-minute documentary portrait of Captain Beefheart; reckoned that in some 200 interviews over four or five days no one else had referenced it.
I took my story’s beating in the way that you do. Many, many months later they even paid me.
After that I wrote long interviews for the blog – 3,000 words if I wanted, more if need be, always 1,000 words at least anyway. And now there’s a podcast – anything from 20 minutes to three hours seems doable, seems valid. So here is the edit that I got the Corbijn story down to. Even this felt nowhere near enough. But at least it flowed. Kinda…
Anton Corbijn is known as one of rock music’s greatest photographers; a giant presence behind the lens, the tall Dutchman has captured so many classic images – Elvis Costello in his bratty punk-pop days, feet crossed, arms folded, looking up, sprawled on the bed – Dave Gahan, singer for Depeche Mode, went so far as to consider Anton Corbijn a member of his group; so important is the visual aesthetic that Corbijn has created.
It was working for the legendary NME – in the punk and post-punk eras – that cemented Corbijn’s name. But the man who refuses to see himself as just a photographer, preferring the term “visual artist”, moved on to be one of the key figures in creating new worlds with the music video. Promotional clips for the U2 song ‘One’, for Nirvana’s ‘Heart Shaped Box’, and for Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ have Corbijn’s stamp on them. The gritty approach that he took to photographing subjects such as Clint Eastwood, Iggy Pop and William S. Burroughs – never glamorised, caught on tape in strong black and white, preserved as if in their natural environment, but also ready to be confirmed as future museum pieces – translated to music videos. But Corbijn has not made a music video in, he tells me, “at least seven years”. He doubts he will again. Unless Dave Gahan calls: “well, you know, some of these people, some of the relationships I have created – they are like family. So if Dave called, sure, I would probably do it”. And Bono? “Yes, and Bono too”, Corbijn adds a chuckle, “Bono can be pretty persuasive. And he can afford my services”.
There’s a lovely arrogance – confidence squared then topped off with a Dutch accent – when talking to Corbijn. I ask him if there is anyone who he would like to work with – is there anyone left in the music world? – and his reply is sublime: “Bob Dylan is one person who”, and there’s a brief pause for thought, to structure wording, “would benefit tremendously from working with me I think”. There’s another chuckle, completely sure that he’s right, “that might sound a bit arrogant”, Corbijn suggests, and then laughs some more, “but it happens to be a fact. I could do great things with Bob. I’m certain of that”.
We will go on to discuss the fact that of all the living legends of music Dylan is the one who still retains an edge of mystery, but not before we flip past the rest of Corbijn’s impressive video C.V. And we have to do the interview thing; we have to talk about Corbijn’s leap to feature filmmaking.
Fortunately, his debut movie was also a labour of love. Control tells the story of Ian Curtis, the doomed lead singer of the British post-punk combo Joy Division. Shot in black and white, assembled to feel like a flip-file of stunning band shots with a perfect soundtrack (Bowie, Iggy, Velvet Underground, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols) Control is something that Corbijn is very proud of. And he’s not just saying that.
“My next film will be fiction – will not be based on anything I’ve seen before, nor with people I have known, but this just felt right as a first film. This was the perfect move for me and I was the perfect person to bring this story to life this way”.
Curtis hanged himself at the age of 23 and his band resurfaced as New Order. Along the way, Ian Curtis, like Jim Morrison (and we are almost there now with Kurt Cobain) has become more than a name, more like a rite of passage. An evocation of an era, a statement for the disaffected and disillusioned.
Corbijn tells me repeatedly in the twenty minutes that we share on the phone that he loves what he does. “I do this because I love it – I love music. I love photographs – I love capturing things”. He got his start as a photographer because he would take a camera in to gigs, “that way I could always get to the front, it was my excuse to get close to the music”. He found “other things to like, besides music. Other things to take photos of, sure”. But music is his first love. And the chance to tell his version of the story of Ian Curtis – with help and support from Curtis’ widow and the members of New Order was a stroll down memory lane. It is lucidly captured in a film that really feels like the embodiment of rock’n’roll; no free rides in limousines, this is the story of a dark battle to stand strong, to be the poet and artist in the breaks around being a father, a husband and a person who brings home the bacon. It is something that Anton Corbijn has gone through himself. And he tells me that we all have. Or we all will.