n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Trainspotting the film (to distinguish it from the book, the play, and the range of breakfast cereals) is that rare beast, a cinematic treatment of drug addiction that dares to show its ups as well as its downs. The second film made by the trinity of writer John Hodge, producer Andrew MacDonald and director Danny Boyle, it ram-raided its way into news stories and award ceremonies in 1996, even managing to monopolise Cannes without being formally entered into the competition. It also managed to do what few British films of the last twenty years did-- actually make money, a seemingly obvious feature of entrepreneurial enterprise that often escapes us in the UK. Not bad, sure, but it managed to put bums on seats in the US too–quite an achievement for a film that features heroin abuse, graphic scenes of shooting up, underage sex, and, most horrifically of all, Irvine Welsh.
The film charts a period in the lives of a group of Edinburgh-based heroin addicts and their friends and family. Some of them live, some of them die, some of them go through a modicum of change and self-realisation, and some of them continue along their path in life, all accompanied by a soundtrack consisting of an adroit mix of late 70s classics, 80s pop and 90s flavour-of-the-month, which, in the 90s, meant Britpop and dance music. As director Danny Boyle explains with understandable glee on an interview included on the special edition DVD, using source music as your soundtrack allows you to hear some of your favourite tunes ��as you’ve never heard them before’, ripped from their original context and slapped onto the big screen. While there’s something mildly subversive about Boyle’s suggestion, a cheeky notion that he’s using a career in film to finance his own monster version of the pub jukebox, it’s a suggestion that doesn’t really hold up to close scrutiny. If you want a better explanation, try this quote from producer Andrew Macdonald’s in Screen International in 1996: ��British youth culture is fashionable at the moment, and the rise of ��Britpop’ has been phenomenal. We want the film to tap into the same audiences.’ Thus the soundtrack is recast as a marketing tool, no different to something that Tarantino, say, might throw together to sell his films. Such sentiments were echoed by the likes of Will Self, Britain’s most erudite needle-freak, who called Trainspotting an example of ��recent drug pornography’ that felt like ��an extended pop video.’ Self is no fool, but one would have hoped for a more measured and less knee-jerk reaction. While the film’s mix of kitchen sink drama and magical realism can sit awkwardly together at times, it’s always the soundtrack that, scene after scene, manages to rescue it.
One of the major stylistic differences between book and film was that the book was composed of a series of vignettes and lacked a definite narrative voice, while the film makes Mark ��Rentboy’ Renton its protagonist. With a judicial use of voice-over, he’s the only one of the main quartet (Renton, Sickboy, Begbie, Spud, and Tommy) that appears to have any kind of subjective inner life--indeed, by forcing us to see things through his eyes, the other characters can seem little more than stereotypes at times. It can be argued, then, that his already highly sonant internal monologues are extended to encompass the music heard throughout the film. This is exemplified best by comparing the two times when we see Spud and Renton sprint along Princess Street in Edinburgh, having just engaged in a bit of shoplifting. As the opening scene, the boys spring in synch to Iggy Pop’s ��Lust for Life’, and it’s a marvellously vibrant and funny opening, played almost in the manner of The Keystone Cops--Renton is knocked down by a car, and yet emerges unhurt. Yet the true context of the scene is delivered on its second outing roughly halfway through the film, where we see that Renton and Spud’s stealing is a desperate attempt to fund their habits after every other avenue available to them has been exhausted. Blur’s woozy, out-of-focus ��Sing’ accompanies this second reading of the scene: a fantastic selection that rescues the song from languishing in obscurity on Blur’s debut, Leisure. There, it always seemed a little out of place next to the oversize t-shirt blitz of ��There’s no other way’ and ��Bang’. Used in the film, Damon Albarn’s gibberish lyrics even manage to make a sense of sorts: ��I can't feel cos I'm numb/What's the worth in all of this?/Sing to me’. It’s a perfect description of the ever-decreasing circles of drug sensitization, where you have to take more to feel the same, and the cycle never stops.
Yet instead of acting as musical context for the characters’ immediate surroundings, the soundtrack serves as a vehicle for Renton to proclaim his independence, even while in the depths of dependence. His voice-overs give him an aspect of self-awareness and also allow us to see him as an individual who is both part of the ongoing narrative and yet somehow removed from it. Renton never addresses ��us’, the audience, directly (thank God: the world didn’t need another bloody ��Alfie’), yet through the soundtrack we are given another level by which to enter and experience his subjective world. We see this in the infamous ��toilet scene’, when Renton has to fish around in a shit-ridden bowl to reclaim his opium suppositories, eventually diving in and finding a somewhat incongruous coral reef. Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” provides the soundtrack, and the scene works on a number of levels: as a way to experience what Renton wants (and needs) to be imagining as he fishes around, as a jab at the kind of insipid sealife movies for relaxation that are often accompanied by generic ��ambient’ music, and as the film’s sole visual riff on the drug experience as psychedelic happening. Heroin and the opiates are no psychedelics, true, but the great white light that Renton swims towards as he leaves the sea behind is suspiciously like the white light that the true enlightened must rise towards as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardol Thodol – famously rewritten by Tim Leary, PhD. Or it’s just the toilet bowl. I know which interpretation I prefer.
So, if we recast Trainspotting’s soundtrack as our auditory cue to Renton’s inner life, it begins to take on a life of its own. Take the use of Primal Scream’s ��Trainspotting.’ The track has a spacey, dubbed-up feeling on record that is completely lost when it’s used to soundtrack Renton and Sickboy’s day in the park, sounding instead as though beamed in from some limited bandwidth transistor on the dark side of the moon. Yet it’s suggested that we’re hearing Renton’s attempt to tune out Sickboy’s obsessive riffing on Sean Connery and Bond movies (bizarre fact i: ��M’ in the Bond movies was played by Bernard Lee, the granddad of Sickboy actor Jonny Lee Miller). Individual tracks can be used in a less subtle manner, too: take the use of Leftfield’s ��One Last Hit’ as Renton takes what, he assures us, will be his final use of heroin, even as he says in his voice-over ��But there are final hits, and final hits.’ And, finally, even in the film’s two clubbing scenes, there are suggestions that the music accompanying the revelry is really only being heard within Renton’s head. In the first scene, set in what the filmmakers want us to believe is a typical club in the era of the New Romantics, Heaven 17’s ��Temptation’ (bizarre fact ii: Heaven 17’s name comes from A Clockwork Orange, and one of the rooms in the club in Trainspotting is decorated in a similar manner to The Korova Milkbar in CWO) cuts instantly into Sleeper’s cover of Blondie’s ��Atomic’ just as Renton’s eye is caught by Diane, his jailbait-to-be.
However, there is room for individual tracks to act as traditional dramatic flourishes, such as when Pulp’s jaunty, sordid ��Mile End’ introduces the unfortunate arrival of Begbie in London. Renton may be a protagonist in this scene, but he’s also playing with the dramatic irony of Begbie’s arrival, the oft-repeated mantra ��…but what could you do? He was a mate’ giving us a sense of Renton’s shoulder-shrugging acceptance of this event. Renton’s passivity is again to the fore here: rarely does he go against the flow of the events surrounding him, and it’s only at the film’s conclusion, where he manages to renege on his deal with his mates and steal the money that they’ve just made in a drug deal, that he begins to swim against the current. This decision is accompanied by Underworld’s ��Born Slippy,’ a track that seems to bash its way into Renton’s skull and infect him with the energy to move on and move up in life. But where is he going as the film ends? His voice-over claims that he’s ��choosing life,’ just like the ��you’ of the audience, but we’ve already seen that life offers little to no choices for the characters in the film. Is Renton selling out to a lifestyle in which he’s already expressed complete disinterest? Or is his final smile a pyrrhic victory, noting that, in a scary echoing of Margaret Thatcher, he’s already declared that ��there was no such thing as society,’ and he’ll be back at Mother Superiors for that real, absolutely no messing, ��final hit.’
By: Dave McGonigle
Published on: 2005-03-17