I made the hilarious mistake of renting Trainspotting when I was twelve years old. My parents should have probably had a heads up that this was not the movie that any twelve year old should be watching, but it had Ewan McGregor in it — a man who, in simpler times, was widely acknowledged by our household to be both very handsome and a truly excellent Obi-Wan Kenobi — as well as that charming Jonny Lee Miller from Hackers! Again, I emphasise: simpler times.
Despite having some of the more iconic (and, arguably, inappropriate for a 12-year-old) images from the movie burned into my skull at an overly-impressionable age — baby Dawn crawling on the ceiling, Renton diving head first into the worst toilet in Scotland, and the “AIDS Junky Scum” graffiti stenciled onto Tommy’s (Kevin McKidd) apartment door, just to name a few — Trainspotting quickly became one of my favorite movies, and one that I would rewatch over and over again. It wasn’t because I was particularly interested in either drug use or drug culture of 1980s Scotland, but because I — a burgeoning baby punk with my youth-sized Doc Martens and a moody pubescent chip on my shoulder — took to the exquisitely matched soundtrack on an emotional level more than any record I’d heard before.
Trainspotting — adapted from the Irvine Welsh Novel of the same name — premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it was taken out of the competition due to it’s controversial subject matter, but later received glowing reviews from critics for its brutal portrayal of drug use in Britain during the 1980s. Many of those critics touted the film for its use of music as mood enhancers where the narrative could otherwise fall flat — which was, one would assume, the exact reason why the Trainspotting soundtrack became one of the best-selling music compilations in modern cinematic history, and still shows up on Best Of lists in Variety, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and countless other tastemaker industry powerhouses even now.
This only makes sense in my mind, though, because once you watch the film, it’s hard not to be driven by the way the soundtrack carves out the story; not just in a visual sense — of which director Danny Boyle does an exquisite job — but to the audible entanglement of the relationships within 1980s culture and its overlap with Britain’s vibrant pop music sensibilities.
The film sees several major tonal shifts as it moves through its three acts, but no shift is as bold or purposeful as the opening’s perfectly executed needle drop of Iggy Pop’s 1977 smash single “Lust for Life” as our main protagonist Mark Renton, played by McGregor, is being chased down the streets of Edinburgh by a group of security officers. The song’s enthusiastic percussion and Iggy’s strained, excitable voice forecast the brighter portion of the Trainspotting story, where heroin use is not only bleakly romanticized, but acts as the bond between a group of friends, falling over one-another on the floor of their drug dealer’s flat — a stylistic choice driven home by Renton’s famous “Choose Life” speech playfully parodying the ‘Choose Life; Not Drugs’ anti-drug slogan of the ‘80s.
The song spills over across several cuts, a non-diegetic mood-setter that shifts from Renton’s thrilling, kinetic getaway through Edinburgh’s Princes Street to playing over gentle coos of baby Dawn just a room away from shared needles, with Swanny — or “Mother Superior” — and Sickboy rambling about James Bond as the latter sets his girlfriend Allison up with a hit. It rolls along and gently fades out to Renton finally making himself a part of the party; announcing to Swanny that he’s finally going off the skag for good. “Heard that one before,” Swanny smiles, patronizingly, gazing on the happy faces blissed on his floor.
“People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite. And that’s not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it” says Renton, as part of his opening narration to the film. “Otherwise we wouldnae even do it! We’re not fucking stupid. At least not that kind of stupid.” It’s an attitude that not only encompasses the general feel for the fun-loving, no-worries atmosphere of the first act of the film, but also “Lust for Life” as a song written during a period of Iggy Pop’s career where he was a noted drug user, but was working to get clean. In this way — even divorced entirely from the context of the movie— the song is not only an absolute dance-proven tune, but is one that resonates a pure, untouchable air of bravado.
The lyrics tell the story of Iggy Pop’s rock and roll career, as well as that of David Bowie, who co-wrote the song and also produced it; a career that, up to the time of recording, was full of arrogance and flights of fancy — even going so far as the reference author William S. Burroughs, whose own vanity and heroin addiction has been well documented. (Johnny Yen, mentioned in the song’s opening salvo as arriving “with liquor and drugs/And a flesh machine/He’s gonna do another strip tease,” is a character in Burroughs’ 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded, described therein as the “Boy-Girl Other Half Strip Tease God of Sexual Frustration.”)
Even more than that, the lyrics — along with the upbeat intensity of the tune — offer a mirror to the boldness of the characters in the opening of Trainspotting, whose experience with their habit manage to always come first and foremost to the consideration of their well-being. As Pop sings “I’m worth a million in prizes/I’m through sleeping on the sidewalk/No more beating my brains/With liquor and drugs”, the song doesn’t wind down; if anything, it picks up harder and faster before ending abruptly; a sentiment that matches — almost beat for beat — the pacing of the film’s entire whirlwind devil-may-care first act.
It’s not only Iggy that we have to thank for this magnificent soundtrack, however. Multiple clever moments of the film are given an special air thanks to some mighty clever music cues, such as an acapella rendition of “Habenera” from the opera Carmen, which adds a playful tone as Renton stocks himself up on supplies for getting clean, only to break out of his own apartment to score — what he soon discovers to be opium suppositories —from the local dealer Mikey Forrester, played by none other than the original Trainspotting book author himself, Irvine Welsh.
The use of music to underscore vibrancy and carefree living isn’t a feature of the entire first act, though. There are also a fair share of instances where songs are used to highlight abnormalities or uncertainty, such as the gentle, ambient tones of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” used as the feature as Renton dives face-first into “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”; or Scotland’s own Primal Scream with their eponymous hit “Trainspotting” — featuring muted, tinny guitar sounds and echoes of the dub beats made popular by the 1990s — as the backdrop to Renton and Sickboy casually discussing Sean Connery and shooting skinheads in the park.
If Trainspotting spends its first act celebrating the lives of its central characters, the second has an entirely different feel, with Renton and the rest of his crew making “the unilateral, democratic decision to get back on heroin”. At this point in the story, things begin to become darker, and thus the score becomes something more sinister and lurid — starting with the deeply appropriate “Nightclubbing,” once again by Iggy Pop.
Appearing on The Idiot, the album prior to Lust for Life — the song was another collaboration between Pop and David Bowie, produced during their own rather on-again-off-again years dealing with cocaine and heroin. The song’s rhythmic Roland drum beats ooze filth into the once lighthearted atmosphere of Renton’s drug addiction, with Pop’s voice offering a sluggish chorus of “Nightclubbing/We’re nightclubbing/We walk like a ghost” as the boys are seen breaking into cars and pensioner’s homes in hopes of pawning items in order to score.
Pop’s drowsy vocals and the song’s relentless rhythm set an increasingly sludgy background for the downward trajectory of each character, including Tommy, who begins his own journey into addiction to help with the grief of heartbreak. Even as Sickboy continues to talk in loops about James Bond, the tone of what the audience is watching has unmistakably dropped into something harsher in the setting of these friendships, with Pop’s song seemingly offering more warning than his last appearance in the movie.
Later, the music makes it’s plunge into the harshest part of the soundtrack as the heartbreakingly iconic scene of baby Dawn lying dead in her crib ends. The audience is brought back to where the film begins visually, with Renton and Spud caught on their run from the police. Instead of the joyful, cheeky “Lust for Life,” however, this time the soundtrack offers Damon Albarn of Blur beginning “Sing” with a harrowing verse: “I can’t feel/‘Cause I’m numb/So what’s the worth/In all of this”, continuing a narration where Renton’s own words end.
Renton and Spud (Ewen Bremner) are sentenced by a judge, and Renton — off scot free due to an ironically clean record — is forced into a celebration with his family. Though this scene is nothing short of a bleak picture of a family, “well done for not going to jail,” pint all together, the appearance of Renton’s mother sets the stage for the next scene: Renton visibly catatonic and remorseful as his mother tells tales of him, younger and happy, beginning a family chorus of the inexplicably popular song “Shortnin’ Bread”.
Few songs embody the pain behind the story of Trainspotting, however, like Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” Famous for some rather dreary and depressing lyrics during his solo career after an impactful debut as singer and songwriter for seminal ‘60s rock band The Velvet Underground, Reed’s voice is one that, when placed in the right context, can speak more than any amount of dialog in a script.
As Renton returns to Swanny’s for another dose having had to deal with the depressing outing with his family, a close shot on the syringe plunger cues a melancholy, minor key on a piano, and Renton sinks in the ground. As his body twitches and the red carpet engulfs him in a truly fantastic special effects shot to mimic his grave, Lou Reed’s soft voice joins the piano, lilting along with tinkling keys, “Oh it’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you/Such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.” Though Reed has gone on record about the 1972 track from the album “Walk on The Wild Side” to say that the song’s meaning is as simple as having a perfect day with a girlfriend, its hauntingly beautiful — and extremely intimate — lyrics prove useful in alluding to something bigger in relation to drug addiction; something that Reed had, himself, struggled with for many years.
The song winds its way through the scene with verses of somber minor progressions and a swelling chorus as Renton is brought to the hospital by a cabbie and brought through the motions of an overdose. While it’s one of the more harrowing portions of the film, Reed’s song provides a warm and necessary undertone as the nurses force Renton out of his self-built grave and the song comes to an end with a gentle verse of “You’re going to reap/Just what you sow”. Though this could be seen as something unsubtle based on his description, its difficult to understate the impact of such a brutal scene being paired with such a gently pointed song.
But, let’s face it — aside from the raucous joy in “Lust for Life”, when many people think of Trainspotting, they’ll tell you that it was the first time that they’d heard “Born Slippy .NUXX” by the electro music group Underworld. The last song of the movie (unless you’re ready to stick around through the credits for some Damon Albarn solo stuff — which perhaps you shouldn’t, honestly), there’s a surprisingly complex texture to the song that can’t help but match the moral ambiguity behind the film’s end. Much like “Nightclubbing”, the song is relentless in it’s rhythm and pacing, acting as a signal that perhaps — while Renton is the quasi-reformed hero of the story — he retains bad habits and an addictive personality.
There are, admittedly, a whole host of songs that I haven’t been able to include in this essay that absolutely make the film. Both famously sexy songs “Temptation” by New Order and later Sleeper’s cover of “Atomic” weave in and out of the diegetic/non-diegetic veil as Renton and his mates get off with their girls at the club. “Mile End” by Pulp and “2:1” by Elastica act as almost comical bookends to Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Sick Boy showing up on his otherwise clean doorstep in London (“We didn’t have nowhere to live/ We didn’t have nowhere to go”!) The list just goes on! Because for every beat of the story as seen on the screen, there is an incredibly nuanced choice to be heard, and just as easily tells the same story, and tells an even larger story about pop music in Britain at the time.
It’s been just over eighteen years since I first saw Trainspotting, and only twenty-five years since the film debuted in theaters, and I can tell you firsthand that there are few soundtracks that can still wow me the way this one does. For anyone that doesn’t believe me, there’s only one thing to do: Sit down with the movie, turn up the soundtrack, and choose life.