‘Trainspotting’ and the art of the perfect soundtrack


With the release of T2: Trainspotting, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s beloved dark comedy drama, the main concern on fans’ minds is how the film will hold up against its predecessor. Trainspotting is a cult favourite within British cinema and it’s easy to see why. Some love it for its memorable dialogue. Some love it for its characters. And some are simply grateful for it shedding light on an issue that many people were either vilifying or ignoring.

What’s usually cited as perhaps its most impressive feature, however, is its soundtrack. Yeah, that soundtrack. The soundtrack that defined a generation and is now revered by that same generation’s kids. The soundtrack that was so popular the filmmakers decided to release another of songs that didn’t make the first cut. The soundtrack that features on pretty much every ’Best Movie Soundtracks’ list you can find out there. You could argue it holds as much of an iconic status as the film itself: it’s hard picturing Spud and Renton sprinting down Princes Street to anything but the crashing cymbals of Iggy Pop’s ’Lust For Life’.

Indeed, a lot of the tracks are now exclusively associated with their own counterpart scene. That’s not an easy accomplishment, especially given how popular music makes up the soundtrack’s entirety. A perfect soundtrack is one that adheres to its film’s style and fits like a missing jigsaw piece. In that sense one isn’t always even necessary: think of how silence is used in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, for example. The real score to that film is the sound of the birds themselves; adding music would have killed the terror, and Hitchcock knew that. It’s all about what works in the context and what kind of atmosphere you wish to evoke. Given that Trainspotting focuses on nihilistic young drug addicts living in late 1980s Scotland, popular music is the obvious choice, with druggy rock and techno being the key genres. Choosing which songs to feature is the real difficulty, and they absolutely nail it.

Let’s take the opening, for instance. ’Lust For Life’ sets the tone for the initial euphoria that comes with taking heroin, and its interspersing with Renton’s famous “Choose life” speech along with a montage of the gang all having a good time makes the drug look pretty fucking cool. If you only saw this scene you could argue the film does glamorise addiction. But then we find out it’s all a facade. Around the film’s halfway point is the same clip of police chasing Renton and Spud, only this time with Blur’s ’Sing’ – a much more devastating track – playing on top instead. Add in another Renton monologue that this time talks about the “misery” of their situation and we can now see the full reality of their heroin addiction. Obviously, it doesn’t look cool at all.

Iggy Pop scores another montage, but again it’s one that shows the ugly side of drug use. Instead of Renton running around talking about how pleasurable heroin is, he’s either stealing from OAPs to supply his habit or he’s drugged up on the floor barely able to keep his eyes open. One tragic scene sees him overdosing to the sound of Lou Reed’s ’Perfect Day’. Some consider the song an ode to heroin, so its inclusion is as relevant as it is brilliant. Swanney dragging Renton’s body out to the street along with Reed’s sombre vocals is upsetting, but it’s incredible cinema.

Other tracks have more subtle places within the film but they’re just as genius. Brian Eno’s ’Deep Blue Day’ is an especially great juxtaposition, its tranquil guitar twangs playing idly in the background while Renton swims to retrieve some opium suppositories before emerging from the “worst toilet in Scotland” gasping for air. Then there’s the clever switch from 80s to 90s music to symbolise the “world changing”, as Diane puts it. A good example of this is the use of Heaven 17’s ’Temptation’ when Renton first meets Diane. Compare that to a later club scene where Bedrock’s ’For What You Dream Of’ plays and the contrast is striking: pounding beats and sweaty, gender-bending raves are now the norm. Britpop also makes an appearance in the form of Pulp and Elastica to really show times have changed. And then of course there’s Underworld’s ’Born Slippy’ to end the film on the climactic, perfect note.

If the track list for T2 is anything to go by, then fans have nothing to worry about. There’s an equal blend of older and newer tracks (Iggy Pop and Underworld make an expected reappearance) but it’s Edinburgh trio Young Fathers who seem to be the stars this time around: director Danny Boyle recently called their new track ’Only God Knows’ the “heartbeat” of the film in the way that ’Born Slippy’ was of the original. Hopefully their placings within the film will prove just as genius.

Words by Samantha King


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