I fire up Netflix and rewatch an opening scene that I have long since committed to memory: The spirited beat of “Lust for Life” replaces the rhythm of feet pounding sidewalk as Renton and his friends race through city streets. Our anti-hero stumbles over the hood of a car and regains his composure with a mischievous grin. The “choose life” monologue weaves through an Iggy Pop song that predates this film by nearly 20 years.
In the decades that followed the release of Trainspotting, I have heard “Lust for Life” more times than I can recall. The same can be said for Underworld's signature cut “Born Slippy,” New Order's song “Temptation” and Sleeper's cover of the Blondie tune “Atomic.”
The Trainspotting soundtrack, which was released 20 years ago this summer, was so ubiquitous in the latter half of the 1990s that it almost disconnects from the film. At times, it becomes the memory of my friends and me procrastinating in dorm rooms during midterms, or heading out to Hollywood from Loyola Marymount's campus on a near-nightly basis. It's the memory of us on the dance floor wiping stinging sweat and glitter makeup from our eyes as Underworld wormed its way into the mix.
Yet the soundtrack and the film will always be intertwined. In my head, “Lust for Life” is always the exuberant preamble to a story about addiction and “Born Slippy” is its shady, quasi-triumphant conclusion. In between, there are songs that help build layers within the story, whether it's by highlighting an allusion to another film or heightening a sense of irony. It's a wonderful example of the power of music selection.
I think the use of music in Trainspotting is akin to a phenomenal DJ set. It captures the audience's attention from the first beat. It recontextualizes old songs and introduces listeners to songs they don't already know. It raises and lowers the energy in waves, keeping the viewers hooked. It adds music-nerd humor with a wink, to see if you're paying attention. It's everything I've ever wanted to hear, and wanted to play, in a club.
There are loads of tutorials on how to learn the technical skills of DJing. The knack for picking the perfect song for a specific moment, however, is something that can't be passed along via YouTube. It's instinctual but grows in strength with a lot of trial and error. It comes from listening to mountains of music, from watching the crowd so carefully that you know exactly when you need a hit and when you can venture into the less obvious tracks. Sometimes, it comes from looking at the party as if it's a movie.
Trainspotting came out the summer after my freshman year of college. At the time, I had already landed a slot on my university's radio station, KXLU, but was still a few months away from learning how to DJ at clubs. Initially, my attraction to the movie was the music; the artists whose songs fleshed out the film and filled two soundtrack albums were people whose work I followed. Later on, after home viewings on various formats over a period of years, I started to think hard about how the music was used.
Sometimes the connection between song and image was subtle. Take the scene that unfolds in a club as “Temptation” by Heaven 17 plays. When you realize that both the art on the wall and the band's name are references to A Clockwork Orange, you might wonder why you didn't recognize that sooner. Other times, it's obvious, as when Lou Reed's “Perfect Day” plays as Renton starts to overdose, turning what would have otherwise been a good day into the descent toward the character's lowest point in the film.
There are plenty of movies that apply music in such wonderful ways that the song becomes inextricable from the scene. To this day, when I hear “Stuck in the Middle With You,” I think of the sadistic Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. I still can't hear the end of “Layla” without flashing to an image of a frozen Frankie Carbone in Goodfellas. Still, those films didn't affect me the way Trainspotting did.
Music is never just about sound. It's tied to memories, images, emotions that sometimes reach a level of mass consciousness but, more typically, remain quite personal. Trainspotting taught me to listen deeply to the music, to draw connections between songs and the images and feelings they evoke, and to try to convey those links to others.
More from Liz Ohanesian:
Sexism in Club Culture Has to Stop
Bottle Service: The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Hollywood Clubbing
Women's Audio Mission Trains the Next Generation of Female Music Producers