To launch our ongoing series “Lust For Life: The Music of Film”, where Step On writers will take a look at all the best, most essential, and most beloved music films (and films where music was an integral part), we present Part One of a multi-part analysis of Step On favourite Trainspotting, this one focusing on the performance of Ewan McGregor as the film’s hero. This once in a lifetime role and its creators captured the mid 90’s zeitgeist just as the 70’s method actors did for the generation before. Ewan McGregor shines as the perfect actor to breathe life into Irvine Walsh’s darkly comic look at heroin addiction in gritty Edinburgh.
Ewan McGregor exploded onto mainstream movie screens with the exuberant, hungry performance as Mark Renton “Rentboy” in Trainspotting (1996). This film bears (demands) repeated viewings and if you have never seen the film, it’s a beautiful thing packed into just 90 minutes that feels like 15. Audiences didn’t know what they were looking at, or if they were attracted or repelled by this performance, and indeed, the heroin chic look McGregor adopted for the role was a few worlds away from an obvious leading man. But as the heart, brains and comic spark at the film’s center, McGregor’s Renton left an indelible mark on cinema.
Trainspotting‘s heart, Mark Renton, is given heaps of charisma, talent and fearlessness as we see a McGregor deliver a hungry, focused, unforgettable role. For those who love film, it’s comparable to watching an athlete execute a perfect movement at a crucial moment, when so many others might freeze. It’s poetry. Trainspotting is impressive in many aspects– music, set design, direction, and performances (and never leaves this reviewer’s personal top 3-5 films of all time); all these elements converge in spectacular creativity borne of outsider art and smaller budgets. But it’s impossible to imagine someone else at the center of this storm. What McGregor communicates skillfully is what is at the heart of this character’s struggle – he wants to feel something, to be ALIVE. The different avenues taken – sex, drugs, crime – to shake up his world and to rally against the slow death of his parent’s domesticity can be read as primal screams of rage and despair that are global and timeless. What the filmmakers and writer Irvine Welsh found in their star was a voice who could convincingly utter the piece’s central message:
Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television; choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday night. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else.
Through the window of unflinching drug addiction, and the film’s refusal to condemn it, Trainspotting offers a view to the big, impossible questions that keep us awake at night, as characters stumble through their choices, clinging to their friends and something like love. To condemn or avoid the subject matter is to miss an opportunity to benefit from the possibilities, which are implicit in the act of choosing, and the repeated use of the word “choice”. For those not “afflicted” with addiction, the narrative gives voice to frustration, passion, and chaos that we can channel in myriad ways other than hard drugs, and through Renton we can short-circuit the possible devastation while embracing the spirit of rebellion and dissent that is essential to feel alive.