Twenty years ago, 'Trainspotting' was a blast of pure punk energy
When I got out of bed today, I moved a soundtrack from my computer to my iPod, and when I got in the car to drive to work, I cranked up Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" for the first time in a while.
As soon as I did, I was hit with a flash of Ewan McGregor, tearing ass down the street, that smile on his face, and I got a full Proustian out-of-body flashback to being in the theater with my friends Pete and Scott and positively levitating out of my chair at the energy of the thing. We were all Danny Boyle fans already from Shallow Grave, but nothing prepared us for Trainspotting. It was one of those seismic movie moments, and it seems impossible to me that it's already been 20 years since it came out.
There have been plenty of movies about addiction and drug abuse over the years, and it's easy for filmmakers to get the horrors of it right. What Trainspotting did so beautifully is get the highs right as well, the joy that makes chasing the pleasure so terribly attractive. It's an amazing movie, and an amazing cast. I always love when you look at a film that was filled with largely new talent when it was made and every single person has gone on to be someone of note. Trainspotting is like a UK version of something like American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused, an ensemble of terrific young actors who springboard out of that film into a wide variety of roles.
It's hard to believe when looking at Ewan McGregor as Renton that he ended up playing characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jesus, because there is something about him that is so charmingly dangerous, so casually charismatic, and while I have always bought into the exuberant embrace of hope at the film's very end, Renton's like a lot of addicts. Convincing. Genuinely optimistic. And most likely, full of s--t.
Jonny Lee Miller is the guy you look at in the film and think "movie star," much more so than McGregor in an obvious way. He plays Sick Boy like his life depends on the delivery of every single line, and his cheeseball Sean Connery impression is so funny. And I thought for sure Robert Carlyle was going to be immediately swallowed up by Hollywood. Both guys have instead built the kinds of filmographies that define "working actors," playing bigger roles, smaller roles, working in film and TV, constantly good, constantly seizing moments to shine whenever possible. Peter Mullan is an actor I consider a standard for how good, how invisible the craft can be, and Ewen Bremner makes me happy every single time he shows up in anything. Same with Kevin McKidd.
The one who seemed extra-special at the time the film came out, and who remains just plain fascinating to me, is Kelly Macdonald. She walked into that movie, right off the street, after a flyer handout in Glasgow. She is so good, so funny, and so in charge of every scene that she's in that 24 year old me felt horribly guilty about falling head over heels for her. I felt a little better when I learned she was 19, but Boyle cast her perfectly, playing someone who both seems older than their years and yet emotionally younger than they think they are. The '90s has some great films in which there were young actresses who gave intentionally uncomfortable performances that used their youth to push the audience, like Natalie Portman's work in movies like The Professional and Beautiful Girls. Of those, Macdonald's is one of the very best, and you can see how real and alive she is onscreen already. Her recent work, like on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, is even better, and it's been gratifying to see that she was able to find writing that really showcased just how good she is.
Boyle was swinging for the fences with the film. You can tell he knows he's got a great piece of material, and he understands English film history well enough to know that he was making an Angry Young Man movie as much as a drug movie. The title is part of the giveaway. Irvine Walsh's novel is about how the combination of poverty and boredom and lack of opportunity can be a destructive force, and it's a positively post-apocalyptic view of Scotland. The film has this great punk energy, and you can feel how Boyle never takes his foot off the gas. One of the dirty secrets of the film is that because of the film's budget and schedule, several scenes had to be shot in one or, at most, two takes. And even knowing that, there's not a moment in the movie where Boyle stages something in the easiest way, or a simple, straight-forward way. He didn't sacrifice style to speed, and it speaks to who he is as a director.
Trainspotting is incredibly well-photographed by Brian Tufano and well-designed by Kave Quinn, and I won't lie… there's something about revisiting it that breaks my heart a bit because I thought this was the beginning of a long and important collaboration between all of these artists. I thought Andrew Macdonald would produce everything, John Hodge would write them all, Boyle would direct, and McGregor would star. I fell in love with this combination of talent, and while they've certainly kept in contact and there have been more collaborations, it really wasn't what the core group. The Beach was the moment that particular dream ended, and while they keep saying they're making the sequel to Trainspotting, I don't know if that's something I want.
This movie is more than a movie. it's a moment. It is one of the things I love most about movies, a collision of a bunch of talented, ambitious young people with something to say who all get it right, who all shine as bright as they can shine, and who have no way of knowing just how perfect all those choices will be when stirred into this particular combination. Trainspotting is as vibrant today as it was when it was released, and, sadly, exactly as true. Locations change, but the feelings that drive young people don't, and I hope that today, twenty years after the original release, some kid sees the film and chooses life, this film under their skin the way it got under mine two decades ago.