Choose life. Choose the ‘Trainspotting’ soundtrack.
The 1980s and 1990s shall forever be remembered as the golden age of MTV. While the MTV style of film editing can be seen in 80s classics like Flashdance and Footloose, by the mid-90s the approach had really found its groove. Two movies from that time emerge as pitch-perfect examples of the aesthetic: 1995’s Clueless, directed by veteran teen zeitgeist tapper Amy Heckerling (who brought Jane Austen bang up-to-date for the youth of the day), and Trainspotting, directed by fellow music lover Danny Boyle, depicting the hardscrabble life of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Although the topics differ greatly in tone, stylistically the works overlap with each other, boasting music-infused, bright, energetic story depictions. What is it about these films that makes them stand out from the pack? Their many kinetic scenes are glued together with amazing music supervision.
With the recent release of the terribly titled T2: Trainspotting, we were inspired to listen again to the original Trainspotting soundtrack and tell you why, all these years on, the film still sounds just as fresh.
In 1996, Danny Boyle captured a snapshot of the Great Britain of the time, bringing Irvine Welsh’s dark cult novel Trainspotting into movie theaters. The novel was set in Edinburgh of the early 90s, a hotbed of opiate abuse. Scottish working-class towns had been ravaged by unemployment since the 80s, its social housing projects having devolved into ghettos. The economic outlook was bleak for the lads from Leigh. In such “council housing”, lots of men had lots of time on their hands and heroin was cheaper than ever.
The US & UK economic depressions of the early 90s caused a swift about-face in music & fashion trends. The bright-eyed, big-haired excesses of the 1980s were replaced by a more austere aesthetic. If the 80s were all about boomtowns, cocaine and consumerism, the 1990s were a heavy comedown from the gaucheness of it all. Entertainment became politicized, creatives weaving a message through their art. The pop music of the 1980s was forward-looking, bands incorporating the new technologies of the time to create brand-new sounds.
In the 90s, acts had started crate-digging to see what they could learn from the past. By 1993, Britain had a “new” scene called Britpop. Musically, it took its cues from 60s pop, psychedelia, and 70s glam. Fashion-wise it raided the closets of David Bowie, The Kinks, and Sergio Tacchini, matching flea market finds with 1970s sportswear, and glueing it all together with a smattering of mod style from brands like Fred Perry and Merc. Disadvantaged punters were drinking lager, smoking crack, and shooting heroin.
What Britpop had created was a knowing pastiche, a cheeky – and very British – marketing invention perfectly complementing Danny Boyle’s approach to film direction. Filmmaking can be seen as a Frankenstein art form, with ideas, inspiration, and techniques being borrowed from other media and creators. Danny Boyle’s work is no exception. In Trainspotting he nods to Bowie, Hollywood, Kubrick, and Scorsese, filling up the screen with pop culture references.
Boyle’s approach appealed to the novel’s loyal cult fanbase, who lapped up the book’s film references and protagonist Renton’s high-and-mighty pseudointellectualism. But where the film really excelled in activating this audience was through the music supervision, which not only mirrored the narrative of the film but also the socioeconomic climate at the time of its release.
Trainspotting’s soundtrack can be seen as a game of two halves: on one side a handpicked selection of the contemporary vogue in pop music, the artistic side of Britpop: not the casual Northern violence of Oasis, but the Balzac-reading, fey sophistication of their Southern counterparts, including Sleeper, Blur, Pulp, and Underworld; on the other side stands a veritable feast of classics, the acts which had inspired not only the Britpop scene but the Danny Boyles and Irvine Welshes of the world: Brian Eno, Heaven 17, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed.
By paying dues to the greats, Trainspotting offers a cohesive musical soundtrack that not only enriches the narrative of the film, but also attracted an audience on its own merits. If Cool Britannia was all about sticking two fingers up to the establishment with one hand and collecting socialist handouts with the other, then the Trainspotting soundtrack is the perfect example of this movement: ballsy, effervescent, imaginative, and eminently profitable.
Listen again here.