The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.
There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.
Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.
It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).
Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…
Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.
It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.
I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.
Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.
If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.