Choose Life: The 21 year legacy of Trainspotting.


Few films can boast of being truly iconic, by that I mean instantly recognisable, be that from a sample of dialogue, a screenshot or snippet of soundtrack. ‘Choose Life’? Trainspotting, Ewan McGreggor disappearing down a toilet? Trainspotting, the opening notes of Underworlds Born Slippy? Trainspotting. A truly iconic film can boast of these traits, and they don’t come much more iconic than Danny Boyles Trainspotting.

Based on the novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting was an interesting proposition in the mid-nineties. Coming in on the tail of Boyles brilliant Shallow Grave two years earlier, Trainspotting was a massive shot in the arm, no pun intended, for the British film industry. Concerning the story of a group of Edinburgh drug addicts and their day to day struggle to support their addiction, Trainspotting certainly wasn’t a film for the feint of heart.

Assembling a cast of relative unknowns at that time, the vast majority of which are household names today. Ewan McGregor’s smart but wasted Renton, Johnny Lee Millar’s enterprising but ruthless Sick Boy, Ewan Bremner’s sympathetic and downtrodden Spud & the frankly terrifying Francis Begby brought to swaggering life by Robert Carlyle. They are all characters that despite their numerous flaws managed somehow to endear themselves to an entire generation, testament to the writing of both Irvine Welsh for inventing the characters and John Hodge for helping them be fully realised on the big screen.

Working out of an abandoned factory in Glasgow in 1995, the £1.5 million budget was put to use well. For example, Ingenious camera trickery was employed for the scene where Renton OD’s. A platform was built up with a trapdoor in its centre and carpet draped over the top of it. On cue the door was opened and Ewan McGregor was slowly lowered through giving the illusion that he was sinking into the floor, the scene in question has become one of the many iconic images from the film, when you learn how it was accomplished, praise must be given for ingenuity and the fact that something remarkably simple in practice became one of the landmark images of British cinema at the end of the 20th century, is testament to the drive of those that made it.

Many films are made by their soundtracks, they can lift the mundane to the sublime just with the right choice of music to accompany the imagery, Trainspotting is undoubtedly up there as one of the greatest film soundtracks of the latter 20th century. I do not feel that is too bold a statement when you factor in just how recognised and revered it is to this day. The opening beats of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life to a shot of feet pounding down a high street is undoubtedly effective as is the out of focus closing shot of the film with Ewan McGregor’s adapted Choose Life monologue to the strains of Underworld’s Born Slippy. They are shining examples of sound & vision used in startling unison and are anthemic & iconic, a feat most filmmaker would kill to achieve.  

This year sees the release of the long touted and eagerly awaited sequel, returning to these characters that we know so well some 20 years or more down the line will feel surreal and more than a little joyful irrespective of the outcome. Here’s hoping Trainspotting 2 can hold a candle to it’s illustrious predecessor.

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