Bright Lights Film Journal

Trainspotting‘s Playlist: A Compilation of Subcultural Struggles

How independent do I want to be if the cost of being pure independent is marginalized … And if the only way to intervene is to be assimilated, perhaps I should allow myself to be assimilated, if that’s the only way to work. Because you’ve got to deal with them, and that’s the line that the Underground has to take — that you stake your claim, artistically, which you try to do with as great a degree of independence as possible. But once you move out of the office, then you have got to deal with Thatcher’s real world, because otherwise no one’s going to hear your records, no one’s going to buy your fanzine, and your dream is to be like a little blip and you don’t want that to happen.
~ Dave Haslam, renowned DJ & owner of 1980s British independent record company Play Hard1

Although Danny Boyle, Andrew Macdonald and John Hodge — Trainspotting‘s production team — were not members of the Underground themselves, they attempted to represent the “Underbelly2 — as Claire Monk aptly labels it — of the British heritage image by recreating the experience of Britain’s youth subculture. As opposed to the classic characteristics and methods of minority cinema in Britain, strategies which focused on exclusion from and rebellion against mainstream society such as those seen in Black British film, Trainspotting‘s producers embraced Haslam’s integrative approach of striving for artistic integrity while accepting the realities of success in an increasingly consumer-driven British society. Further, the creators of Trainspotting seemingly assumed a role similar to that of Haslam; in recognizing the need for a two-pronged approach to the subcultural realm, they took on the dual role of filmmakers as well as DJs. The movie became more than just something to be watched; with a highly emphasized sonic element, layers upon layers of sound and songs that served as more than “aural wallpaper,”3Trainspotting was a sensory phenomenon and explosion.

The balanced, well-informed and hybrid approach of Trainspotting through the medium of sound mirrored the social circumstances of the youth subcultural world. The constant states of oscillation within such a realm, from drug addiction to child-adult transition to post-Thatcher acclimatization, branded it as one of flux. The physical body, pop culture, genre categorization, moral judgment, individualism — all of these continually moved back and forth from extreme to extreme, reconfiguring themselves constantly in and around contemporary youth culture as the youth themselves struggled with them. In creating a movie of this experience, visual focus would not suffice; the movie producers, the characters of the film and the receiving audience needed an avenue along which to represent and understand the elements in flux. The crucial element of Trainspotting, its sound, enabled the linking of the cinema world with the world it attempted to recreate and represent. Each character in the movie, whether through drugs, Sean Connery, or violence has — as Renton comments — “That what he got off on: his own sensory addiction.”4 The moviemakers offer the audience the same opportunity to “get off,” as well, through their own sensory addiction — in Trainspotting, the senses are attracted to, obsessed with and tantalized by sound.

Choose text,

Drawing on the language of Trainspotting‘s original text, a novel by Irvine Welsh published in 1993, the movie adapted the distinctive phonetic Scottish dialect with which the novel is written. Often difficult to understand upon first reading, novel reviewer Jane Mendelsohn characterized the experience of the language as, “alienating at first, exhilarating once you get the hang of it, and finally poetic in its complications.”5 Indeed, acclimatization to the language requires a reading out-loud of the typographical rendering in the mind’s ear: “Ah wished tae fuck that ah wis in one ay they squads instead ay wi this auld cunt.”6 The vernacular contains strong rhythms and poetic slang, contributing to its vocalization-prone style.7 A highly sonant book, even on the written page, Trainspotting the novel sets up an already audible framework for the filmmakers.

Choose a verse,

Welsh wrote in the style of James Kelman, a Scottish writer and winner of the Booker Prize; his language was quick and episodic utilizing profane language and free verse, as Harlan Kennedy put it.8 The many variances and jumps in the language, and its often poetry-like structure on the page, parallels the frozen frames, montage sequences and “fantastical visual punctuation”9 of the movie. Welsh willingly recognized the potential for an “unfaithful representation” of the text in the film adaptation; however, he considered the text to be dynamic and felt “the exciting part of it” was to note how, “it’s going to change as it moves into a different medium.”10 The looseness, loudness and inherent rhythms of the original language ease the tension of text-film adaptation and accentuate the aural cinematic product.

Choose a dialect,

The distinctive Scottish dialect signifies a stress on heritage. However, talk regarding Scotland in the movie (and novel) actively condemns and insults the national heritage. Tommy takes his mates for a walk through a classic Scottish landscape; Renton reacts by calling the Scots the, “lowest of the fucking low.”11 Renton literally and metaphorically abandons symbolic Scottish geography and heritage through the course of Trainspotting. The film rejects the context of Scottish nationalistic/glorification films from within which it arises — Braveheart and Rob Roy. Trainspotting‘s producers took, as Harlan Kennedy of Film Comment phrases it, “the leftover stock footage [and] handed [it] back to the Scottish Tourist board.”12 Dialect is the film’s primary vehicle and simultaneous undertone to indicate heritage. Although Renton addresses Scotland directly only on one occasion, the distinctiveness of the argot and the difficulty in understanding the characters’ speech continually reminds us of nationalistic differences and tensions. In addition, Renton’s back-and-forth to London further emphasizes this element.

Choose a big fucking noise,

Despite its Scottish character, Trainspotting achieved transnational success. As reviewer Robert Morace indicates, the arresting opening sequence juxtaposes Renton’s Scot diatribe with Iggy Pop’s American drawl13; establishing the inter- and intranational dynamics of the movie. The sequence also demonstrates the most pervasive quality of the film — the many layers of diegetic sound, or sound that exists within the film’s narrative space. Sound in the backdrop of Trainspotting, unlike the “sounds of society” typical in British realist film — people talking, traffic passing by, machines working, dogs barking — are absent; instead, a “rushing, wind noise”14 replaces the noises of surrounding society and its members. Suggestive both of a type of surreal silence and constant motion, the wind noise plays an essential role in the film’s kinetic, fast-paced energy. Only heard in full effect when all the film’s other sounds disappear, the rushing sound comes directly preceding a realization. It appears as Renton strolls along before toppling over impending with diarrhea; after reading his girlfriend Diane’s letter, hearing his doorbell buzz and understanding his friend Begbie’s arrival; and as he knocks on his friend Tommy’s door, confronting him AIDS-ridden. The sound of movement replaces silent thought while also propelling the narrative forward.

Choose material objects,

The “whooshing” sound denies the film of silence, highlighting its on-going rapid pace in addition to serving as a reminder of the noise ever-present in the world of overstimulated youth. Welsh, in writing his novel, acknowledged the condition of the youth, club-going culture who inhabited an overly-arousing environment of soundbites, music videos, advertisements, and computer graphics. Accordingly, Welsh felt the importance of writing in a style “to keep the pages turning, to keep the action moving, just like a DJ.”15 The constant noise necessary to drive the story forward correlates with youth’s lowered sensitivity to common din; yet Trainspotting chooses to deliberately amplify the sounds of objects in the everyday, material world. The exaggerated reverberations of cans opening, bags of chips ripping, trains whistling, bottles hitting tables, lights flickering, flies buzzing, drinks being slurped, doors locking and bolting (a double camera shot for emphasis), and water faucets dripping create a soundscape of increased volume and awareness of material objects. The film emphasizes material goods in order to explain, open, fill and cut scenes; the almost comical multiplication of their relative sonority shows the importance of such commodities in consumer culture. Further, the amplification of these sounds contributes to the disparity between the silence of society and the heightened sounds in Trainspotting‘s world. Here, sound in its contextual exaggeration represents the reduced focus of the rest of society in Trainspotting; Renton and his mates resign themselves to societal poverty and unemployment as norms and, in a sense, render society trivial. Society is not a relevant part of Renton’s existence; it fades into the background exerting no influence, soundless. Further, the separation from society, demonstrated through relative volume, also emphasizes the characters’ extreme individualism and self-containment relative to their environment. The exaggeration of material objects’ noise serves a two-fold purpose: it highlights consumerism and the associated individualism of a capitalist, as well as separate youth culture.

Human bodily functions,

Trainspotting, often equated by critics — such as Derek Paget and Christine Harold — to a pulse-taking,16 engages in the jointly tactile and auditory action by measuring the limits of human corporeality. This film, which Boyle “wanted … to pulse,” is about “being a transgressor” (868); Trainspotting intentionally reconfigures boundaries. Commentator Christina Harold argues that, in directly confronting the physical body and its changing nature, Trainspotting defines the body’s exchange of fluids as its mode of communication (867). Renton focuses on body excrement and the three associated buckets for detoxification; in the toilet scene, he must search and later immerse himself in his own feces; Spud has an “accident” on the sheets which later splatters around the kitchen; Renton uses a spoon and syringe to inject heroin into his veins. In each instance, Harold observes, the body incorporates things into itself (865). Harold quotes cultural theorist Elizabeth Grosz, who proposes: “The body image is extremely fluid and dynamic; its borders, edges and contours are ‘osmotic’ — they have remarkable power of incorporating and expelling outside and inside in an ongoing interchange”(865). In Trainspotting, the dynamic body pushes its boundaries in very vocal manners: Renton relieves himself accompanied by many sighs and groans; Renton separates and bangs the buckets on the ground loudly; Spud realizes he has soiled himself because of the rumbling of a plane; and when Renton injects himself with heroin, the camera shot from inside the syringe includes an intense suctioning sound. Reconfiguring boundaries of the physical body mirrors an engagement and response with socially constructed boundaries (864). Characters in Trainspotting use their bodies as a “fertile ground” (866) for desire, criticism and resistance. Through a focus on the interchanges of the body and its fluids vis-à-vis heroin and feces, Trainspotting draws a fundamental parallel to the dynamic relationship of an individual with society; moreover, it sets up the potential for dialogue with society.

Singing voices,

On two occasions in the narrative Spud sings. These instances contain the only melodic voice from a character within the story. Spud’s interview — post-amphetamine consumption — may appear to be a very-rapid paced monologue; however, upon closer listening to the rhythms, word pronunciations, repetitions, sentence structure, wording and cut-offs in his speech, Spud seems to freestyle rap. Spud vocalizes in high and low intonations, rhymes words such as “pleasure” and “leisure,” and cuts off in mid-word while gesturing in a motion that mimics spinning a record. In a quasi-rapper, quasi-DJ role, Spud takes on the role of sole musical artist in the movie. Following Tommy’s funeral, the sound of Spud singing “Two Little Boys” against complete silence links the two scenes. As Murray Smith points out, at this moment Begbie’s outbursts, Sick Boy’s selfish tauntings, and Renton’s voice-overs are lacking17; even the rushing noise is absent. Here, the movie slows down; it pauses. As fitting for after a funeral, the period provides time for contemplation and the mood shifts to an overtly sentimental one. Further, according to Murray Smith, the song suggests that adult allegiances destroy childhood friendships.18 Spud’s musical talent, as well as its time and place significance within the story, represents the coming-of-age struggle of Trainspotting‘s characters. As they fluctuate between youth and adulthood, they must reconcile two different realities. Spud’s rap indicates the pervasive pop cultural musical influence and its penetration into the behavior and lifestyle of the youth; and yet, Spud’s traditional song solidifies sentiments of childhood transition and loss.

and voiceovers,

The most dominating voice of Trainspotting does not sing; rather, Renton speaks his voice over all other events in the film. Director Boyle explained: “I realized how good a film like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is, in the way it uses voice-over so effectively. I started off thinking it’s a substitute for the visual, but actually you need to visualize a lot more because you need to create a lot of material to allow the voice-over to have its time.”19 The desire for this specific type of aural element dominates the visual organization; further, Renton’s voice controls the interpretation of visual sequences through narration and commentary. Trainspotting novel reviewer Robert Morace argues that Renton’s voice-over is intended as a method to replace the book’s internal monologue with Renton as the central character20; therefore, as Jane Mendolsohn explains, it locates itself a step back from the situation or crisis.21 In this removed position, Renton can still remain part of the narrative structure, but by addressing “You” — the audience — the youth — he declares his self-awareness. The voice-over interplays and intermixes with the narrative and dialogue, asserts it presence and yet absence, as Karen Lury calls it,22 and offers no chronological certainty.23 Renton’s ambiguous involvement by way of his voice-over demonstrates the ambivalence of youth. Voice-over, with its readily adaptable and transformative quality, becomes a “cross-diegetic,”24 equally indeterminate, force of the film.

Renton’s voice over, which may whisper to the audience, foreshadow Begbie’s experience with a transsexual or directly name the song that plays while shooting up (“Final Hit” by Leftfield), allows him to exist on several different levels within and outside of the narrative. At its core, however, the voice-over stresses and reflects Renton’s extreme individualism. The voice-over, adapted for the purpose of focusing on Renton centrally, simultaneously reveals his preoccupation with himself. Still a child, Renton focuses on the events and situation within which he finds himself. However, as the movie goes on and with Diane’s influence, Renton gradually begins to question his character, his progression and his music/drug-oriented world. In the final voice-over, Renton states: “The truth is that I’m a bad person, but that’s going to change, I’m going to change. This is the last of this sort of thing. I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life.”25 Renton directly addresses the implications of his choices and the pressure to conform but empowers himself through his ability to choose … or does he still mock choice and consumerism as he did in his opening voice-over? The voice-over effectively mirrors the ambiguity of introspection. As part of a post-Thatcher youth culture, Renton, according to Monk, individualizes and capitalizes26; his self-centered tendencies foster a sort of introspection. Renton childishly chooses himself above his mates, yet commits to change, exudes an adult ambition, and perhaps, even embraces consumerism. The audience witnesses the ambivalent and contradictory combination by way of Renton’s direct voice.

Stage One: echoing

Echoes fill Trainspotting, ameliorating the effects of the camera’s many long shots. Beyond the diegetic level of echoes, the movie, just as the book, resounds with Welsh’s “inter-echoing vignettes.”27 On one level, the monologues and distinct scenes correlate with and mimic each other to form a comprehensive, interrelated film sequence. Concurrently, scenes from within the movie also echo scenes from other movies: the opening sequence recalls the beginning of the Beatles’ movie “Hard Day’s Night”28; Sarah Street makes a connection between the subtitles of Tommy and Spud in the club to those of Clockwork Orange and its invented language29 Murray Smith calls the walk across the road in London by the four mates a restaging of the 60s Abbey Road cover30; the drug film quality reminds of others in the drug culture genre; and, the lists characteristic of the film imitate Tarantino. Indeed, the producer readily admits that, “We tried to steal some ideas. From films like Clockwork Orange or Alfie. I think that was the last period when Britain actually made films about contemporary subjects that were exciting and impactful.”31 In attempting to make a broad-ranging, effective contemporary film, the moviemakers invoked images and qualities of other genres and times and created a hybrid product. The production team recreated and targeted a contemporary subculture not narrowly defined and contained within its own time; by reaching out to other traditions of pop culture, Trainspotting resounded both inter- and intra-film.

For this you will need: one ambient music you will not leave

The moviemakers reached out to a different level of sound utilization through external sources for the sake of cinematic and, simultaneous, sonic enrichment. The inclusion of ambient music as a non-diegetic feature facilitated the transformation of Trainspotting into a surrealist film, in addition to its already hyper-realistic quality. Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day,” quintessential ambient music, satiates the senses in Renton’s underwater scene. K.J. Donnelly, a writer for “Popular Music,” recognizes Eno’s music and his pioneering work in merging “sonic environmental awareness with functional aspects of film soundtrack music”32; it ideally suits Trainspotting both in its parallel to dance clubs’ chill-out rooms in and its image-friendly quality.33 The amorphousness of ambient music’s role and its aural effectiveness render it especially fitting for displaying the euphoric effects of heroin and enabling, as Harlan Kennedy visualizes, “the dull prose of realism move[ing] to one side; the false resonances of ethical or mystical perspective move[ing] to the other. And we are left with a gleaming through path into subversion’s mischiefs and surrealism’s higher sorcery.”34 Ambient music in Trainspotting easily enables the visualization of the preceding image of pathways: Renton swims gracefully through blue water with a light above him in a dream-like, magical scene and the overall surreal quality of the cinematic presentation guides a social commentary on realism by the simple fact of its oppositional quality. Renton’s dive accompanied by Eno’s mood music transforms the movie from real to surreal and, as Derek Paget argues, soothingly reminds of underwater peace and tranquility as opposed to surface ugliness.35

One surreal color palate

The alternative reality or the dreamlike illusions, which ambient music provides, helps bring to light other fantastical elements of Trainspotting; specifically, the use of color. The deliberate, greatly contrasted color schemes throughout the cinematography subconsciously contribute to the audience’s impression of heroin use. Mother Superior’s, the epicenter of heroin in the Trainspotting world, contains completely green and yellow rooms while others are shot in red lighting with red carpet and purple walls. The four mates, whenever sitting together and usually in a row, each wear different bright colored shirts (at the bar, at the club, and during the drug deal negotiation). Renton shoots up upon a backdrop of two side-by-side windows; one is a vivid green, the other a bright yellow. Boyle aimed for a color scheme that was “more Mediterranean, exotic – not psychedelic, but deliberately seductive.”36 The extremely artificial lighting nonetheless heightens the sensual experience of the film; the deep hues of cool and warm colors titillate the senses subtly, just as the ambient music does. Color and ambient music, both purposefully surreal in Trainspotting, demonstrate the possibility of transcendence of realism by members of the subculture.

Britpop: ten tins of

Pop music during the ’80s and ’90s became ubiquitous both in television and film. Producer Macdonald tapped into this trend — as evident in a statement to Screen International: “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.”37 Britpop was Trainspotting‘s main vehicle to integrate youth subculture into popular culture. Youth in the 1990s cultural moment yearned for self-definition and struggled as they were being misread by an “older generation in Britain [that] allowed itself to be heritaged half to death.”38 The Trainspotters, quite distinct from the Janespotters — terms coined by reviewer Derek Paget because, ironically, Trainspotting and Sense & Sensibility were released on the same day — participated in rave culture. These subculture staples offered a “moment-event,”39 as Chris Stanley names it, of alternative formation of desire and identity. The fusion of Trainspotting and rave/pop culture through the Britpop enabled Trainspotting‘s audience the opportunity to indulge themselves in the music of their desires and identities. Andrew O’Hagan of Sight & Sound went so far as to say that Trainspotting was, “Gauranteed to win with young audiences keen on disaffection and anarchy and good music;”40 yet O’Hagan also felt that the combination of drug culture with Britpop was, “disturbing… to see the lives of this troop of addicts and psychos blasted about in pop promo fashion.”41 Other critics extended a similar sentiment; Will Self called Trainspotting an “extended pop video” and an example of “recent drug pornography”42 and Michiko Kakutani felt Boyle made a film in MTV’s image which, “offers bourgeois audience a voyeuristic peep at an alien subculture and lets them go home feeling smug with it.”43

The mixed criticism regarding the pop/rave culture crossover and merger arose from the important space, or foreground, which Britpop occupied in the film. By its obvious and loud musical accompaniment, Britpop matched the narrative precisely and contributed to its exhilarating character. Murray Smith notes that Pulp’s “Mile-End” realistically represented the slum-like squalor of Begbie’s presence through its bittersweet melody;44Underworld’s “Dark & Long,” with its compulsive and relentless groove, captured the heaves of nausea and Renton’s convulsive state of struggle in withdrawal45; and Sleeper’s “Atomic” bound together the three sex scenes. In addition, the inclusion of the dance song “Think About the Way” by Ice Mc also further tapped into Britain’s dance-club culture. These songs, adapted and edited for the film, achieved non-diegetic and diegetic status. Their continual presence metamorphosed into a part of the film’s ambience; Fred Karlin, a film music expert, argues that such an adaptation thereby nullifies the audience’s emotional response.46 However, the fluctuating volume and alternating cutting and fading enabled the music to continually assert itself. Britpop commented on the film by becoming part of the culture within it — it plays on the radio in Diane’s house in the morning — but also by retaining the symbolism of pop and consumer culture. The changing state of Britpop’s incorporation into Trainspotting represents its permeation into subculture and pop culture — ironically, two which become the same. The same rave/pop duality present in the audience itself facilitated Trainspotting‘s recognition, appreciation and consequent commercial success. BFI reviewer Murray Smith even proposed that the “continuous flow of pop music on the soundtrack and the various permutations of the gang in locomotion, the film seems like a pop film in which the gang have taken on the role of pop group.”47 It is as if the characters are the pop stars, too. Trainspotting and Britpop tied together and interchanged subculture with commercial culture.

’70s punk, eight tins of, for consumption cold

Murray Smith asserts that the propelling rhythm, balanced harmony and electronic flavor of Britpop made it ideal for chasing sequences48; the first notable Britpop song in Trainspotting, Blur’s “Sing,” was used for a subsequent repetition of the opening scene later in the movie. The parallel of Blur’s Britpop and Iggy Pop’s 1970s punk indicates the interrelation of both types of music in Trainspotting. Cross-generational implications accurately fit the 1980s setting of the movie; by framing the film in the 70s original heroin/drug culture and its later reincarnation in early and mid-90s Britpop, Trainspotting targets broad youth culture. As Macdonald describes it:

The music was deliberately centered around Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and David Bowie, but from there it took off into contemporary culture… The music allows us to travel in time, which is why the arc of music was from washed-up punk, to the King of Punk — Iggy Pop — right the way through dance music and a quick trip to London’s dance culture, right the way through Brit Pop, with Pulp and Blur.49

Crucial to its contextualization, the “arc of music” stood as part of the producers’ foremost objectives. The original creator of Trainspotting, Welsh, cites Reed and Pop as his influences more than any writer.50 Tommy even mentions Iggy Pop directly on two occasions. By referring to Pop’s concert in the recent past and bringing Pop’s revival (and disassociation from drug culture) into Trainspotting‘s context, the possibility of overcoming heroin addiction increases. Tommy’s apartment contains a poster of Iggy Pop on the wall — the only decoration amidst the colorful palate of design. Yet, ironically, Tommy is the one who dies of the addiction. Seventies punk music in Trainspotting signifies the constant back-and-forth between addiction and withdrawal, as well as a push-and-pull with many time periods.

Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” resounds with pervasive themes of a romantic relationship where drugs substitute for women; indeed, love poetry is used to extend a positive drug message, proposes Karen Alkalay-Gut in her essay comparing the literary dialogue of rock and Victorian poetry.51 “Perfect Day,” the song in the movie containing the most lyrics, dominates the film’s sound mix — even above Renton’s voice over.52 The competition for space within the movie’s soundscape between diegetic and non-diegetic elements, characters and singers, techno and silence, and poetry and dialect adds yet another level of complexity to “being heard,” a struggle similar to that of youth vis-à-vis their parents, peers and society.

With a scope wider than only the contemporary culture of its release, Trainspotting deejays a “coming-of-age story”53 for any youth. It does not moralize or document, it presents. Screenwriter Hodge, aware of the implications of a drug/pop culture movie match-up, stated that the production team was careful and, “didn’t want to glamorize or attract people to drug use;”54 however, director Boyle addressed the issue that, “We’re still stuck in the 70s in terms of attitudes to drugs… There’s still stigma attached to it.”55 The production team balanced these two time period tensions by conflating several decades of youth culture via music. In Trainspotting, the collage sequence of London strongly reminds of past “Swinging London” montages that included Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, royalty and all the streets made famous by Monopoly — a cross-generational reference within British cinema tradition and a genre integration. Trainspotting continually oscillates between integration with society and withdrawal from it — just as heroin addiction — and just as youth.

Marketing campaign, effective, one large tub of

The soundtrack of Trainspotting, a compilation of well-known ambient, Britpop and 70s punk music — all cross-diegetically incorporated — came to assume an aural role beyond the movie itself. The music’s tremendous appeal on its own, in addition to the fact that — as Jeff Smith remarks — soundtracks are generally considered “safe bet” samplers,56 launched the movie beyond its own cinematic limits. The Trainspotting soundtrack, following in the footsteps of Saturday Night Fever‘s soundtrack, which sold 20 million copies and cemented the youth market as the target audience,57 was marketed as a package “brand,” as Karen Lury succinctly named it.58 EMI released the soundtrack, but paired with its common competitor, PolyGram, in order to expand the marketing of the CD; Polygram employed a design consultant, Stylorouge, in order to further the pop/rock image of the soundtrack. Beyond the CD soundtrack and the second, additional soundtrack released a year following, the movie was aggressively marketed. Justin Wyatt, in his Sight & Sound “M is for Marketing” article, begins to list the elements of the campaign: the poster of Trainspotting‘s five main characters in a bold popstar “glamour” pose59 who appear horizontally or vertically, as if it present on the spine of a book or CD60; a mantra and scandalous ad-slogan “Choose a life. Choose a…”61; a videocassette that features a music video in direct conjunction with the feature presentation; DVDs; copies of the screenplay; and a reprinting of Welsh’s novel featuring the poster on the cover. This “synergy,” or phenomenon of successful film and music cross-promotion, served as an integrative strategy: even though the movie was artistically unique in its cross-diegetic, -generational, and -genre use of music, the moviemakers accepted and embraced the effective marketing methods of their own contemporary context. Beyond embracing it, they went beyond to revolutionize Britain’s marketing methods and increase the movie’s transnational appeal. According to Paul Swann piece regarding cultural policy and export, Trainspotting reached out past generation, nation and class and targeted an age demographic above all else62; it did so with the infallible tool of its soundtrack.

Flux, Integration of, one bottle

The multi-pronged approach of Trainspotting‘s production team allowed the oscillation and ambiguity within the movie to freely exist. That which increasingly perturbed Trainspotting‘s critics — that the movie did not moralize and, especially, did not condemn drugs — reflects the subculture/mainstream integration of the film and its subsequent tension. Trainspotting refused to hold tightly to the reins of traditional pressures regarding drug attitudes and cinematic tendencies; sound, in a sense its “loudest” mode of expression, exemplified the use of an alternative form of movie focus — one which gave away to a new kind of sensory experience — while its amorphous nature allowed the fluctuations of the culture it represented to take their own course. Trainspotting represents youth and, therefore, the associated confusion, rebellion, resignation and marginalization. In order to link the sentiments of the British youth culture that gravitated towards a rave subculture to the greater youth struggle, Trainspotting tightly weaved sound and music into its fundamentals in order to expand its applicability and appeal. The production team, like DJ Haslam, did not distinguish between their “office” — or the movie-making — and “Thatcher’s real world”; they setup a joint workshop where artistic goals were defined by mainstream feasibility and effectiveness. However, they did not relinquish their cinematic integrity to consumer culture; through the increased importance of sound’s role within the movie, they recognized a need to enable the majority of youth to interact with the movie on their own level — through music and the sensory joy its offers…mimicking raves themselves. Trainspotting became part of the culture and with time, took in its own cult status.

Trainspotting accurately displays an understanding on the interplay of factors and influences within youth culture. The movie recreates the cultural experience by incorporating itself into the sensations of such a world. Each sound served a distinct purpose. Trainspotting appeals to a cult-prone youth via pop, rock and punk music, precisely the foundations of subculture formation in British culture. Trainspotting taps into the technologically advanced, under-sensitized world through an amplification, exaggeration, and competition of sounds. The movie expands its context through the incorporation of cross-generational pop, punk and rave music. However, the movie does not aim to exactly mirror the youth world; it reaches beyond social realist drama by the inclusion of surrealist sonic and cinematographic elements. Indeed, Boyle enumerates: “We just didn’t want to go into that usual drug world where things are so appalling you can’t even watch it. It just wears you down. We wanted the film to have vibrancy — a humour, an outrageousness, we wanted it to be larger than life really.”63 The film’s makers wanted the movie to transcend and simultaneously magnify reality — just as its target audience strove to do. They used layers of sound to create surrealism, hyper-realism, comedy, drama, and a music-video quality. Trainspotting plays with every formality and category of cinema structure while it plays its music; this “negation of fixity,”64 as critic Sarah Street calls it, constructs a pathway along which to play with notions of extremes. The aural elements offer an understanding of and inclusion within the reconciliation process of individualism and society, choice and conformity, childhood and adulthood, past and present.

Created, mixed and layered with precision as any electronic piece of music that is spinned, Trainspotting‘s musical and audible quality originated in Welsh’s text. The production team, in adapting it into a film, said that, “Welsh had this total belief in house and club culture. He let us do what we wanted. He saw it like it was being remixed for an Ibiza special or something.”65 Welsh, in a sense, considered his text a piece of music to be remixed, sampled, edited and, subsequently, played in the huge dance clubs characteristic of the party island Ibiza. In addition the commercial success of the soundtrack, the movie itself is a euphoric “night out” — an enjoyable experience for its viewers. It opens pounding away at Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” during a scene that later repeats in true context — the movie begins, it seems, “en medias res”. In the first five minutes, the movie flashes between five different scenes. Initially and forcefully submerged in the middle of action, the first scene sets a foreground for a movie of constant propulsion and locomotion. Trainspotting proceeds forward along with kineticism, full of energy and lust for its life, utilizing a customized playlist of sounds: songs which are played together, sounds played against each other, and aural surrealisms integrated as part of a hyper-realist sound scheme. The sensory orgasm of the movie lies in the ways in which the sounds combine, overlap, echo each other, speak over one another, refer back to each other, compete, alter their volumes and keep the movie moving forward headfirst. The Trainspotting experience, a hotspot for youth expression and relation, distinguished itself from its subculture contemporaries by taking advantage of the prominence of sound and music in youth culture. Trainspotting’s crucial musical inclusion resulted from the brilliance of editor Masahiro Hirakubo who mixed, cut and synchronized the movie’s sound to maximize its effect and correlation with the narrative events. The intricate sound integration of the film allows music to compress time and, therefore, accelerate the speed of the film. Instances such as Atomic’s “Blondie” parallels the three sex scenes and traverses spatial and narrative boundaries as in Renton’s impossible leap landing corresponding with the last chord of the song; together, these super-real aural effects offer the possibility of transcendence.66

Renton and his mates do not rebel but transcend in a unique way. Claire Monk argues that Trainspotting, as opposed to movies such as The Full Monty and Brassed Off, accepts male disempowerment, poverty, joblessness and social exclusion as a given state.67 Renton often parodies famous Thatcher quotes through his “Choose life” diatribes and comments regarding the non-existence of society. The lifestyle of Trainspotting, critics argue, represents a detached subculture of British youth who do not attempt to change the status quo. Rather, British youth adapt within the environment and mark their own paths,68 ones of music, drugs and cults. Trainspotting, though, does not condemn the social condition; the movie embraces the mindset of a reactor. Reviewer Martin Stollery notes that Renton is not proactive; he is a “poacher”69 who copes with, responds to, and takes advantage of the situations within which he finds himself. Renton transcends, it seems, within the physical — although not psychological — boundaries of his world.

Sound, the primary vehicle of integrating the subculture, controls the many fluxes of the society because of its inherent and apparent plasticity within Trainspotting. Boyle does not categorize, label and codify Trainspotting‘s sound; rather, he creates with careful precision strata of sound that, within themselves — they fluidly, intertextually and amorphously — parallel and, paradoxically, capture the ambiguity of the youth mindset, lifestyle and attitude. Therefore, Trainspotting releases youth from the constraints of right and wrong and the pressures to organize and control; the distinctive aural character, just as the main character, embraces the struggle for identity, whatever choices that may include.

* * *

For background information and extended research, I have relied on:

Hart, Matthew. “Solvent Abuse: Irvine Welsh and Scotland.” Rev. of Glue, by Irvine Welsh.Postmodern Culture 12.2 (2002) (in order to contextualize Welsh’s work in society)

McCarron, Kevin. “Tattoos and Heroin: A Literary Approach.” Body & Society 5.2-3 (1999): 305-315. (regarding the duality of the body and mind, specifically the possibility of transcendence of the body)

Taylor, Charles. Rev. of Trainspotting, dir. Danny Boyle. Salon.com. 16 Feb 2003 (to explain the rock-video character of Trainspotting)

  1. Haslam qtd. in Steve Redhead, The End-of-the-Century Party: Youth and Pop Towards 2000(Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1990) 72. []
  2. Claire Monk, “Men in the 90s,” in Robert Murphy, ed British Cinema of the 90s, (London: British Film Institute, 2000) 274. []
  3. Murray Smith, Trainspotting (London: British Film Institute, 2002) 65. []
  4. John Hodge, Trainspotting: A Screenplay (Miramax, 1996) 27. []
  5. Jane Mendelsohn, “Needles and Sins,” New Republic 2 Sep 1996: 35. []
  6. Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, 1st American ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996) 234. []
  7. Robert A Morace, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Continuum, 2001) 25. []
  8. Harlan Kennedy, “Kiltspotting: Highland Reels,” Film Comment 32.4 (1996): 32. []
  9. Kennedy 32. []
  10. Welsh qtd. in Derek Paget, “Speaking Out: The Transformations of Trainspotting,” in Deborah Cartmell & Imelda Whelehan, eds Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text (London: Routledge, 1999) 130. []
  11. Hodge 46. []
  12. Kennedy 29. []
  13. Morace 18. []
  14. Smith 72. []
  15. Welsh qtd. in Morace 40. []
  16. Paget 130 & Christine L. Harold, “The Rhetorical Function of the Abject Body: Transgressive Corporeality in Trainspotting,” Jac: a Journal of Composition Theory 20.4 (2000): 866. Further references to C. Harold in this section will be made by page number. []
  17. Smith 39. []
  18. Smith 40. []
  19. Boyle qtd. in Angus Finney, The State of European Cinema (New York: Cassell, 1996) 179. []
  20. Morace 81. []
  21. Mendelsohn 32. []
  22. Karen Lury, “Here and Then: Space, Place and Nostalgia in British Youth Cinema of the 1990s,” in Robert Murphy, ed. British Cinema of the 90s (London: British Film Institute, 2000) 105. []
  23. Martin Stollery, Trainspotting: director, Danny Boyle (London: York Press, 2001) 30. []
  24. Smith 59. []
  25. Hodge 106. []
  26. Monk 282. []
  27. Morace 41. []
  28. Sarah Street, European Cinema: An Introduction (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave, 2000) 189. []
  29. Street 189. []
  30. Smith 14. []
  31. Macdonald qtd. in O’Hagan 10. []
  32. K.J. Donnelly, “Tracking British Television: Pop Music As Stock Soundtrack to the Small Screen,” Popular Music 21.3 (2002): 337. []
  33. Donnelly 337. []
  34. Kennedy 33. []
  35. Paget 139. []
  36. Boyle qtd. in Andrew O. Thompson, “Trains, Veins and Heroin Deals,” American Cinematographer 77.8(1996): 81. []
  37. Macdonald qtd. in Finney 181. []
  38. Paget 140. []
  39. Chris Stanley, “Not Drowning but Waving: Urban Narratives of Dissent in the Wild Zone,” in Steve Redhead, ed. The Clubculture Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) 36. []
  40. O’Hagan 7. []
  41. Ibid. []
  42. Self qtd. in Morace 83. []
  43. Kakutani qtd. in Morace 84. []
  44. Smith 38. []
  45. Smith 62. []
  46. Fred Karlin, Listening to Movies: The Film Lover’s Guide to Film Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1994) 12. []
  47. Smith 14. []
  48. Smith 215. []
  49. Macdonald qtd. in Finney 180. []
  50. Smith 65. []
  51. Karen Alkalay-Gut, “Literary Dialogues: Rock and Victorian Poetry,” Poetics Today 21.1 (2000): 45. []
  52. Smith 68. []
  53. Mendelsohn 31. []
  54. Hodge qtd. in Finney 176. []
  55. Boyle qtd. in O’Hagan 10. []
  56. Jeff Smith, The Sounds of Commerce (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 209. []
  57. Karlin 228. []
  58. Lury 100. []
  59. Justin Wyatt, “M is for Marketing,” Sight and Sound 7.6 (1997): 39. []
  60. Lury 107. []
  61. Wyatt 39. []
  62. Paul Swann, “The British Culture Industries and the Mythology of the American Market: Cultural Policy and Cultural Exports in the 1940s and 1990s,” Cinema Journal 39.4 (2000): 39. []
  63. Boyle qtd. in O’Hagan 11. []
  64. Street 189. []
  65. Macdonald qtd. in Morace 79. []
  66. Smith 60. []
  67. Monk 278. []
  68. Monk 278. []
  69. Stollery 24. []