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[The CHIRP Radio Movie Collection documents great movies that feature music or musicians.]
The Plot: A group of heroin addicts in Scotland tries to make their way in an economically depressed late 1980s UK.
For a few years in the 1990s, “heroin chic” was a thing. The pale, hollow-cheeked look that came from riding the white horse was, in certain circles, considered a desirable image. It represented decadence and fun, regardless of the danger that’s always close behind.
The cinematic expression of this idea is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, a film based on a novel by Irvine Welsh. Released two years after Quentin Tarantino’s landmark movie Pulp Fiction, Boyle’s work is similar in its highly stylized mise-en-scène and the characters’ ironic detachment from realities that would be quite different were this a documentary instead of a work of make-believe. Sure, being hooked on smack is bad, but it certainly doesn’t keep the main protagonist (played by Ewan McGregor) from saying a lot of clever things or fooling around with hot young teenagers. Four years after this film’s release, Darren Aronovsky’s Requiem for a Dream, using even more visual flair, would indirectly indict the “addiction as entertainment” sub-genre by presenting drug addiction as closer to what it actually is - terrifying, depressing, and gross without the movie-star chic or uplifting ending.
Still, Trainspotting is an entertaining story that’s well directed and performed by a talented cast. Like Pulp Fiction, the movie is immeasurably aided by a fantastic soundtrack that sets the mood perfectly. Not all the songs are home runs; The band Sleeper’s carbon copy of “Atomic” by Blondie doesn’t match the epic awesomeness of the original, even with Debbie Harry having another go-around on vocals.
But the hits far outnumber the misses: There’s the banging tribute to consumerism “Lust for Life” and cheeky party anti-anthem “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop, legendary lead singer of legendary band The Stooges;* “Temptation” by New Order, maybe the greatest aural depiction of a chemical rush ever put on tape; Underworld’s “Born Slippy .NUXX” and “Sing” by Blur, a couple of alt-club numbers that manage to be meditative, menacing, and euphoric at the same time; Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” a quiet, sad requiem that sounds very much like it’s spoken from experience;** and “Mile End” by Pulp, a track whose ironic perkiness and vivid descriptions of junkie squalor paint the same kind of picture in a few minutes that the film does in an hour and a half.
Taken together, the songs represent the attitude of a movie that’s very much of its era, one in which hard drugs may be destructive and sad, but in the right light those precious, particular days, are also kind of cool.
*Iggy Pop and The Stooges being a singer and band that, perhaps because of their undiluted musical qualities, to this day are still waiting for their proper due in the history of American rock.
**The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” comes to mind as a song that would be dead-on in this film’s sentiment but out of place in this soundtrack.
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