Illustration by Lizzy Nightingale.
CW: drug abuse
I’ve always loved depressive British rock.
The score of British bands such as New Order, The Cure, Joy Division, The Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen really gets to me. We relish in their lyrics. The hopeless beats of these bands engage a true miserabilist in us. It can give us a sort of self-loathing comfort. We can become terrifyingly self-aware of this wanton craving of the music but still listen to it. There comes a point when we don’t desire self-improvement but rather seek continued self-destruction. There is frightening reassurance in embracing this.
So this is when I saw Trainspotting…
Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the cult classic from 1996, managed to succinctly capture the socio-cultural zeitgeist of late 90s Britain mixed with an iconic new wave, post-punk and Britpop soundtrack. It brilliantly encapsulates the mood of post-Thatcherite Britain with the incorporation of a dynamically transforming music industry.
The film takes a grungy look at Edinburgh’s criminal underbelly through a group of Scottish heroin addicts. The rhythmic 90s soundtrack is masterfully contrasted with brutal social realism, capturing rampant drug abuse in contemporary Scotland. The social decay, poverty, and unemployment is juxtaposed with the lively and spirited music of a newly-emerging Cool Britannia – the renewed breeze of optimism in 90s British culture.
The soundtrack is not complementary to the film but rather defines it. It gives it an almost anachronistic feel of being suspended in late 90s Britain.
This juxtaposition clearly comes into effect in the opening scene with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as an ‘exultant ode to decadence’ played over a scene of Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton and Ewen Bremner’s Spud running away from two John Menzies security guards along Princes Street. The frantic pursuit is perfectly underlaid by an ecstatic drum and punk. Trainspotting perfectly compliments its visual eye-candy with an impressive aural arrangement.
This unassailable thematic contrast occurs again when Lou Reed’s carefree-listening “Perfect Day” – an allegory for the self-aware self-destructiveness of drug abuse – is played over Renton’s heroin overdose. This perfect pairing is repeated with New Order’s “Temptation” at the moment Renton realises there is a self-interest in limiting his hedonistic impulses.
There comes a point when it doesn’t feel like a film score but rather a Spotify playlist of someone’s most important moments in life.
Trainspotting presents a much-needed rationalisation of self-destructiveness. Renton and his crew choose pleasure to escape the mundane responsibilities and harshness of modern life. We are all trying to escape something, whether through mindlessly scrolling social media or a crippling heroin addiction. The ending monologue shows Renton, high off exploiting his mates, totally embracing modern life as a healthier ‘escape’ over the timeless and healing “Born Slippy” by Underworld.
Renton even embraces the most pointless aspects of modern life. Yet this complete attachment to the goal of moving forward prevents us from looking back. As T2 Trainspotting presents, Renton continuously looking forward on a journey of self-improvement stops him from looking back. When we act like Renton, we forget who we are.
Renton manages to experience the beauty in all things of the now. He even appreciates ‘swimming’ in the “worst toilet in Scotland” whilst trying to retrieve his morphine suppositories over the hypnotic weightlessness of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day“.
So we have to experience the present by choosing the here and now. We have to choose to stand still and embrace life with all its flaws and errors. We should experience life for what it is. As Rainer Maria Rilke states in his poem Go to the Limits of Your Longing: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror…”
So why is Trainspotting significant to me? I can now choose to sit back, adequately satisfied, and just listen to the music…