Why Trainspotting still matters 20 years on
This year Danny Boyle’s classic film Trainspotting turns 20. With a sequel on the way – the first trailer for T2 arrived this week – JIM POE takes a look back at the enduring impact of the movie, and why it still means so much to dance music.
I did a Spud Murphy-like gurning double take when I realised that Trainspotting was released 20 years ago this year. It’s not only the typical “Ugh I’m getting old” that accounts for the lurching sensation of how much time has passed since junkie Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) and his delinquent mates crashed into cinemas; it’s how much they meant to us – and still do.
A worldwide hit, director Danny Boyle’s electrifying adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel defined and documented a restless, troubled generation, reverberating far beyond the grimy, drug-soaked UK streets and council estates that it depicts with verve and abandon and loads of black humour.
“Trainspotting was pivotal in bringing UK club culture and music to a mass audience.”
Trainspotting was also, of course, pivotal in bringing UK club culture and music to a mass audience. The thing is, if you’re a bit younger or simply missed out, and you watched Trainspotting for the first time, you might wonder why. The film’s club scenes take up less than 10 minutes of screen time (though there are more in the book).
The soundtrack features punk icons Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (both frequently mentioned in the dialogue as heroes of the characters) as much as it does dance music. The story is more about drug addiction, laddism and angst in post-Thatcher UK society than it really is about music or partying. So why is Trainspotting regularly mentioned with 24 Hour Party People or Human Traffic as an all-time classic in the sub-genre of club and rave cinema?
For one thing, it was groundbreaking in its powerful use of electronic music by the likes of Leftfield and Underworld – especially the transcendent scenes featuring the latter’s Dark & Long (Dark Train) and Born Slippy.NUXX. The soundtrack CD, with its iconic fluorescent-orange-and-white design, was ubiquitous at after-after hours back-to-mine sessions in sparsely furnished loft apartments or messy bedrooms all over the world for years after (the jewel case almost always sprinkled with bits of tobacco and weed from spliff-rolling).
And no other film of the day so brilliantly captured the post-rave cultural zeitgeist of that mid-’90s moment, from the proto-hipster anti-fashion of the film’s shambling slacker antiheroes; to the contrastingly crisp, clean design of the posters, which resembled club flyers or record sleeves with that eyegrabbing fluoro orange, bold Helvetica font and satire of rockstar poses.
But more importantly, Trainspotting was the first film to so accurately represent the social conditions that provided fertile ground for the rise of club culture. It’s a film not about raves, but, indirectly, about the world that made raves necessary – a world of brutal economic competition and uncertainty, a world that emptied inner-city warehouses of their commercial use and gave young people nothing else to do but party in them. This is vividly apparent even through the film’s ’80s-bred punk-rock-loving characters are obviously a bit bewildered by these trends. As Renton’s teenaged lover Diane admonishes him, “The world’s changing. Music’s changing. Even drugs are changing.”
“Trainspotting was the first film to so accurately represent the social conditions that provided fertile ground for the rise of club culture”
With his 1991 novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland gave my generation its name – without consulting us. But we could just as well be called Generation Trainspotting, given how much the combined phenomenon of the novel, film and soundtrack connected with us and spoke for us.
In those years I was DJing and partying in New York with a multicultural, multinational crew that included English, Irish, Scottish and Icelandic expats as well as born-and-bred New Yorkers of Puerto Rican, African, Irish and Italian descent. It’s hard to overstate how important Welsh’s books (also including The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares) were for us; we passed paperback copies around like holy scriptures.
When Trainspotting the film hit American cinemas like a bomb in the summer of 1996, there was this breathtaking sensation of seeing our people on the big screen for the first time. They looked like us; their clothes and apartments resembled ours; they talked about the things we talked about. Despite the film’s beautifully specific and fiercely proud portrayal of the working class of Leith and Edinburgh – the accents so thick that some of the dialogue was infamously subtitled for American audiences – my friends who grew up in Manchester and Brooklyn alike intimately recognised the film’s urban world of struggle and alienation.
The unemployment, the petty crime, the tribal alliances, the bouts of euphoria and despair, mates succumbing to addiction and disease. It resonated just as much for those of us raised amongst the strip malls and bleak economies of American small towns. The joy of spending two hours with these characters – with their ecstatic highs, their feverish lows, their boredom, their sexual escapades, their nightmares, their drug deals gone awry – was a small reflection of the joy we found in each other despite the confusion and apocalyptic dread of those years.
“Despite the nihilism, degradation and horror Trainspotting confronts us with, it’s amazing how life-affirming it ultimately is”
In his opening narration, Renton says “I chose not to choose life.” That rejection of establishment bullshit was the focus of the film’s famous “Choose Life” marketing campaign, even as the film ironically became a smash hit and entered the mainstream.
This rebellious stance is also one of the main reasons why Trainspotting continues to speak to millennials who were toddlers or weren’t even born when it was released. The political and economic forces that resulted in the urban blight depicted in the film have only become entrenched. The recent upheavals of the failed Scottish independence referendum and Brexit are the fallout of the troubled Britain that Welsh and the film captured so well. Renton’s famous, still-shocking rant about how “It’s shite bein’ Scottish!” could to this day be a manifesto for angry, hopeless youth anywhere.
But despite the nihilism, degradation and horror Trainspotting confronts us with, it’s amazing how life-affirming it ultimately is. And that weirdly uplifting quality is intricately tied in with the enchanting music that was such an important part of its success.
Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.