Soundtrack Studies: ‘Trainspotting’

Tuesday, July 22 by
Seedy. 

Movies about heroin, unlike movies about other drugs, generally aren’t very fun. While filmmakers have the ability to glamorize other drugs, or at least downgrade them to “mischievous” or “sleazy,” there’s something sad about heroin films. The act of sticking a needle in your arm, the ceremony, the privacy required is a very sad, lonely state of affairs.

But thanks to the magic of Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle, Trainspotting manages to turn heroin addiction into something of a chore rather than an addiction. The characters are humanized to an extent that addiction becomes this thing they have to live with, sometimes humorously, like the characters in Office Space have to live with their jobs and bosses.

When Trainspotting isn’t mundane, it runs towards the whimsical and absurd. Babies crawl on ceilings and guys swim through toilets to get suppositories. A dead baby on a ceiling isn’t as sad as a dead baby in a crib (which the film also gives us). I don’t know why that is, but probably because a dead baby on a ceiling makes you think, whereas a dead baby in a crib just makes you feel. The ceiling baby is not sad, but morbid and certainly bleak.

The film’s bleakness, which is probably the prevailing “tone” of the film, is largely a result of two things: the film being set in Scotland and the film featuring a pitch-perfect soundtrack that offers a halo of cool to the film. The soundtrack, populated by many New Wave, post punk, and Brit-pop artists. In fact, the soundtrack is entirely British save for the inclusion of a couple Lou Reed songs. Brit-pop was always cool, but had a hard time becoming popular Stateside. Possibly we are Americans, and we like our pop hermetically sealed in a safe environment.

As such, some of that lack of traction can be attributed to Trainspotting. I don’t think that one album is capable of stopping a movement, but the film manages to be funny, cool, and extremely dangerous, and that danger may have proved to be a turnoff for many people. The words “funny,” “cool,” and “dangerous” also describe another film that came out a year before: Pulp Fiction. Similarly, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack was something people wanted to be around, but not get too intimate with.

Trainspotting had more starpower going for it with cuts by the aforementioned Lou Reed, Pulp, and Blur, in addition to New Order, Elastica, Underworld, Primal Scream, and Brian Eno. People generally don’t go out of their way to listen to Brian Eno, and he’s generally someone that people don’t feel compelled to get to know better.

Not unlike the characters of Trainspotting. Sure, it’s fun to watch Renton attempt to straighten up and fly right, it’s fun to watch Sick Boy hustle, and it’s fun to watch Begbie fight, but by humanizing the addicts and making them far more complex, the film’s effects are more insidious than those of a Requiem for a Dream. We would watch these guys without the heroin, but from the outset of the film, we have to make peace with the fact that will never happen.

The film masterfully weaves between the normal lives of these characters and their crippling addiction, and the soundtrack goes a long way towards that end. There are a number of uses of songs here that resonate profoundly with the viewer, and the one most frequently cited is “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, which plays while we witness the protagonists shoot heroin and bliss out.

I can say with some certainty that this song got more mileage out of its inclusion on the soundtrack than any other, newer work. It doesn’t hurt that it was the most familiar song to Americans on the soundtrack (being the only song by American on the soundtrack), but also it’s because the song is perfect.

There are lot of songs that bring to the film a more palpable sense of fun and hope, but those are by newer artists and confuse the message that DRUGS ARE BAD. It’s a little ridiculous to say that some rock songs didn’t get more traction because they glamorize drug use, but when delivered in the package of Trainspotting, lots of emotional dynamics serve as stumbling blocks on the path leading from the film to a good time.

But the film ends with hope and a perverse sense of justice set to Underworld’s “Born Slippy” (which unfortunately, exists on that playlist only as a replica of the original). Renton, once again resolute in his desire to quit straighten up and fly right, steals a sum of ill-gotten cash from his friends, gives leaves some for the only guy who deserves it, then leaves.

The song gives an extremely faint sense of hope, and that’s just enough for the film to make the leap from being a great film about drugs to just a great film.

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