Trainspotting: Director’s Cut
February 19, 2003
When Trainspotting was released in 1996, it took the world by storm and caused a sensation not only in its homeland of England, but in the United States as well. Audiences couldn’t get enough of this gritty, funny tale of Scottish heroin addicts. The Criterion Collection originally released an extras-packed laserdisc. Miramax subsequently released a bare bones edition on DVD and have now, finally, gone back to the well with a new “Definitive Version.”
Taken from Irvine Welsh’s edgy cult novel of the same name, Trainspotting follows the misadventures of a group of Scottish drug addicts as seen through the eyes of one of them—Renton (McGregor). His friends include a speed freak motormouth named Spud (Bremner), a suave ladies’ man, Sick Boy (Miller), straight-edged Tommy (McKidd) and the psychotic Begbie (Carlyle). The film takes an unflinching look at their lives and the highs and lows of drug addiction. It shows why people do drugs—the highs are so unbelievably amazing. However, Trainspotting also shows the flip side: death, poverty and desperation which lead to stealing, lying and cheating just to get more drugs.
Trainspotting explodes on the screen as it opens with a stylistic homage to Martin Scorsese. It’s a film bursting at the seams with energy—fasting moving tracking shots (that recall Mean Streets) as Spud and Renton run from the police, freeze frames (reminiscent of GoodFellas) that introduce each character and rock ‘n’ roll music (Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”) blasting on the soundtrack.
The screenplay, by John Hodge, successfully distills the book to its essence and includes some of its most memorable dialogue. From Renton’s famous “Choose life” monologue to Sick Boy’s “Unifying Theory of Life” speech, Trainspotting has insanely quotable lines. This helped develop a loyal cult following over the years that continues to champion the movie even to this day. And yet what resonates most with its audience is its honesty. The film doesn’t sugarcoat its message and it isn’t preachy either. There is an ironic detachment that transforms it into a playful black comedy mixed with gritty drama and surreal sequences.
It doesn’t hurt that this excellent material is brought to life by a fantastic cast of then unknowns. Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle would all go on to bigger things—especially McGregor who benefited the most and is now known to millions as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He has the toughest role in the film as the anchor that the audience identifies with and the character that the rest of the cast revolves around. It is a tricky balancing act because Renton does things that make him unlikable and yet we still root for him because of McGregor’s charisma. Robert Carlyle is also great as the completely unhinged Begbie. The scene where he recounts a colourful story about playing pool and dealing with his cocky opponent perfectly captures the essence of his character. Carlyle plays of the scariest psychos ever put on film. He has a frightening intensity and an unpredictability that is unsettling and exciting to watch.
Trainspotting also features one of the best contemporary soundtracks with an eclectic mix of British music from the likes of Primal Scream, New Order, Blur and Underworld, and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed from America. The music veers back and forth from the adrenaline-rush of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” to the faux spy music by Primal Scream to the drugged-out mellow mood music of “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. Taking a page out of Scorsese’s book, the filmmakers use the music as signposts letting the audience know what time period they are in and attaching particular songs to particular characters.
The first disc features an audio commentary that first appeared on the Criterion laserdisc with actor Ewan McGregor, director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald. Boyle wanted the film to be a subjective experience like reading the book. Hodge says that they cast McGregor as Renton because he could be charming and repulsive at the same time. Robert Carlyle actually came from a bad part of Glasgow and knew people like Begbie. This is a very informative track with excellent insights by everyone as one would expect from Criterion.
There are also nine deleted scenes with optional commentary from the Criterion laserdisc. Most of it is extra footage that unnecessarily explained things and provided more information than needed. That being said, there is quite a good scene between Mother Superior (Mullan) and Renton and a scene that explains why Sick Boy becomes such an unlikable character later on in the film.
The second disc contains the bulk of the extra material. “Retrospective” examines various aspects of the film with interviews done at the time of production and brand new ones conducted last year with Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald. Boyle explains how a scene works with and without music. He brought in most of the electronica music, most importantly Underworld, which he describes as “the heartbeat” of the film. There is also some vintage interview footage with Irvine Welsh the day he shot his cameo for the movie. He thought the book wouldn’t have gotten published much less turned into a movie. Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald talk about the challenging of adapting the book and the performances.
“Behind the Needle” shows a scene where Renton shoots up from three different angles with video commentary from Danny Boyle. He talks at length on how it was achieved.
There is also vintage footage from the movie’s screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. A camera crew interviews Martin Landau, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Ewan McGregor as they exit the screening and offer their impressions of what they saw. Nothing too substantial here but it is a nice snapshot of the times.
There is also a teaser and theatrical trailers.
“The Making of Trainspotting” featurette was done at the time of the production. It is pretty standard electronic press kit material but still well made. There are some good soundbites from the cast who introduce and talk briefly about their characters.
There are biographies of the cast and crew.
And finally, a gallery of production Polaroids mainly of extras from the movie with some cast included as well.
Trainspotting has aged surprisingly well considering it was one of those zeitgeist-defining movies. It also set the tone and style of later British exports like Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000). Miramax has assembled an excellent DVD with a crystal clear transfer and a decent collection of extras that fans of this film will enjoy for hours.