Perhaps no other city is as emotionally, and intractably linked to its music as is Manchester, UK. And, of course, at one of the most crucial moments in the development of 20th Century culture, one Anthony Wilson was its impresario.
“He was a passionate advocate of new music,” infamous journalist Jon Savage says of Wilson in the new Showtime documentary about New Order titled Decades. And indeed, the band’s Bernard Sumner recalls how Wilson literally started a record label, Factory (one of the most important such concerns in modern history), just to sign Joy Division. Savage describes it precisely as, “more of an idea than a professional record label.”
The story of New Order is told via current interviews, with flashback footage poignantly interspersed; and it certainly could have ended up a dry, chronological narrative. But much revolves around the exhilarating process of artist Liam Gillick creating a “conceptual” stage show (monikered So It Goes) for the band, leading up to a monumental gig at the Manchester International Festival in 2017 – intended as a tribute to Wilson, who died suddenly in 2007. (Though a great deal of the live footage is from a later, 2018 show in Vienna, utilizing the same stunningly hyper-sensory stage setup.)
Drummer Stephen Morris snarks that to prepare, they would have to charge up the laptop batteries, and “Get rid of all the porn.”
But in an interview in the doc, Gillick insists that the intention was for, “the focus [to] still be the music. I was very keen that this would not be a weird art event.”
He observes that the final product was, “in a sense closest to sculpture.”
The archive footage, however, certainly thrillingly reminds of just how much New Order affected the sonic and visual zeitgeists of those years following punk, especially when the 1988 William Wegman directed video for “Blue Monday” comes on the screen. But there’s obviously no avoiding the tragedy of Ian Curtis, the ill-fated Joy Division frontman who legendarily hung himself on May 18, 1980 – leaving the rest of the band to carry on as New Order.
The camera catches a somber Sumner, explaining how, “Singing any of his lyrics, I always get an image of him. It was terrible what happened. But he was such a determined, explosive character, I don’t think there was anything we could have done to change things – apart from locking him up 24 hours a day.”
“You can never really deal with suicide successfully,” Morris reckons, “because you’re always going ‘What if?'” Savage then observes that due to Curtis’ failing health (he suffered from epilepsy), he likely could not have carried on in music for much longer anyway.
Of course, any documentary about New Order is about so many more things: it’s about Manchester, it’s about Joy Division, it’s about Tony Wilson, and it’s about a time when music changed the world as it probably never, ever will again. But most viscerally, it’s about carrying on in the face of tragedy, because there is still so much to say and do – so much of which Decades so affectively captures.
Decades premieres Friday, December 27, at 7:30pm on Showtime. New Order have also just announced a special four night Σ(No,5m,20Mia) performance at the Fillmore in Miami Beach, January 14 -17, as part of the Four at The Fillmore series.