Reading David R. Shumway through Trainspotting

Rock ‘n’ Roll Sound Tracks and the Production of Nostalgia:

Ways in which David R. Shumway’s essay relates to Trainspotting

Trainspotting’s soundtrack is divided up into two fairly distinct temporal spheres; Late 1970’s rock a-la Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and David Bowie (who doesn’t feature directly in the soundtrack but did co-write and produce Lust for Life and helped produce Perfect Day), and then early 90’s rave (Underworld, Leftfield) and pop (Blur, Pulp). Though we might look back now on the film and it’s 90’s soundtrack with a sense of personal or appropriated nostalgia, depending on how old we are, the emotionally realistic nostalgia felt by Renton, Sick-boy and Tommy comes in the form of their idolatry of Iggy Pop and Shaun Connery.

The first diegetic dialogue of the film is comes from Sick-boy’s comparative analysis of 4 of Sean Connery’s depictions of James Bond. His summation of the dapper Scot could be a description of Iggy Pop, if we replaced actor with singer, which is an easy image to collect in your mind at this point as there have been over 3:30 minutes of Lust for Life hammering away under John Hodge’s superb opening monologue.

“I’d say in those day’s he was a muscular actor, with all the presence of someone like, Cooper or Lancaster but combined with a sly wit, to make him a formidable romantic lead, closer in that respect to Carrie Grant.”

Sick-boy’s reverence for Sean Connery seems like a vehicle for a nostalgic sense of longing for charisma and flair, traits that are distinctly lacking in the characters surroundings. Iggy Pop’s iconic track harks but to a time when heroin was used by the chicest of chic, Bowie, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Andy Warhol: A time when the drug itself, as well as the lifestyle that almost invariably come with it, was glorified in some senses by these celebrities association with it.

Sick-boy’s “Unifying Theory of Life”, in the scene where he and Renton are shooting air rifles on the Meadows goes as far as to list his heroes (antiheroes depending on your outlook) at the implied height of their greatness, who all happened to be taking heroin (George Best, Bowie, Lou Reed) in the midst of another conversation about Sean Connery in the Name of the Rose and the Untouchables, set to Primal Scream’s Trainspotting. The music is important here as it is a signifier that Renton is no longer taking drugs, even though the conversation seems to point still to veneration for those that did.

Throughout the film when Renton is “using” the soundtrack is the music of affiliated heroin addicts and when he is clean it isn’t.

After the ill-fated trip to the countryside and the groups decision to take up smack again, Sick-boy returns to another thesis about Connery related issues set to the slick sound of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing at the same time as Tommy talking about wanting to take heroin because he chose to see Iggy Pop over his girlfriend’s birthday. The Connery/Iggy imagery continues and is then compounded by Sick-boy’s James Bond-esque concealed heroin kit in his heel. The imagery and soundtrack here again point to a time when there was sophistication to heroin that in their lifestyle there most certainly isn’t.

Lou Reed’s Perfect day is used as a kind of ironic ode to addiction, or at least has been described as such[1], fitting as a kind of counterpointed reverie for Renton’s overdose.

The final affirmation of Renton’s nostalgic association to Iggy and heroin comes when he is lying in bed with Diane for the second time, and with youthful disregard for the past she is counselling him on his life’s direction.

“You’re not getting any younger Mark. The world’s changing, music’s changing, even drugs are changing. You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop…

The guy’s dead anyway.”

Diane finally shakes Renton out of any longing he might have had for his past habit by associating the promise of new future with new music/drugs. I found this scene particularly interesting as it is the first mention of a future, and as such an antithesis to the nostalgia come drug use and the time where we see Renton take control of his habit and lifestyle.


However, the main point of Shumway’s article on the use of Nostalgia in film is that Nostalgia should not be associated with a particular politics of time or place.

Shumway’s first example is the film The Graduate starring Dustin Hoffman and with what he credits as the first film to have a score made up completely of previously recorded songs, in this case by Simon and Garfunkle which make up almost all of the “extra-diegetic” music in the film. Shumway states that at two points in the film the songs are presented in a different way from the others, as folk songs instead of rock arrangements, and accompany montage images that serve as a retrospective of the protagonist’s life. As such, the music serves as an emotionally transformative device to draw the audience back through time.

He then goes on to contrast this with the film Easy Rider, which uses previously recorded music not as a termporal-trasportation device, but as a generational identifier. He argues that the rockier tracks that make up the main score for The Graduate essentially achieve the same effect as setting the protagonist as being part of a distinct generational group. However he states that in Easy Rider the music trades music more on being an emblem of a generation. He goes on to say that the most important function of the music in the film is in fostering generational solidarity, whilst at the same time acknowledging the non-diegetic commentary of the narrative it provides along the way. Essentially it creates an “us against them” atmosphere between Billy, Wyatt and us, the audience which in turn makes us part of a community with the characters we are relating to. He then goes on to explain that as much as the film encourages us to relate to the idea of rock as a community, it also “laments the unreality of it”. In essence explaining how the communion of rock spirit is doomed and as such placing it in a kind of utopian unclaimed past, as in it is something that the present and current future couldn’t support.

Shumway then contrasts two films that initially seem to share a visual sense of unity. He defines the type of nostalgia we are talking about as commodified nostalgia, as in not the kind of nostalgia that we as viewers are expected to have experience to draw upon in order to relate to the film. Simon Reynolds also has a clear way of explaining these distinctions in the second chapter of his book Retromania[2]. The idea that through mass media there is a defined identity of a generation past, that we can appropriate and then project our understanding on to.  He states that there is a fictionalisation of the past, in this case the 50’s, in which the ideals of the producers threaded. As such he states that through the music used in the film American Graffiti, a sense of glossy community is created that didn’t exist at the time it is referring to and as such creates an idealised version of the past.

In contrast, in the Big Chill, Shumway claims that the music used creates a truly nostalgic past for the characters for which the music relates, not an idealised one. In this case we are hearing music that relates to the characters past and as such shows us a nostalgia for a past that has happened, if only for the characters in the narrative. As this is an overtly political film, the characters politics come to the fore through the music they used to express their identity. In this case creating a sense of postradicalism that is more factually truthful in time to the 60’s in which the film is set.

Similarly to the two previous films, Dirty Dancing creates temporally appropriate nostalgia by using songs that evoke images of a specific time, 1963, when the film is set. However, he goes on to explore the way the newly composed music for the film intentionally disrupts the sense of nostalgia and temporal setting. He also emphasises how the music is used to deliberately create a sense of nostalgia for liberalism that is at odds with other films that were being made at the same time, in 80’s America. In doing so Shumway discusses the cultural significance of the music and how it can be nullified or rationalised by the images that it is presented as a representation of.

In the film Baby, Its You, music is again used as a setting of time and place but functions more as a traditional film score, not seeking to create skewed versions of history and not presenting a separate political possibility than the one that the characters are living in.

Ultimately Shumway eloquently explains the use of music and nostalgia as both a setting and dramatic device, able to move between perceived realism and emotional realism, but at the same time as being loaded with both the producers’ and audiences’ preconceptions. As such it is a particularly strong tool for appropriating political agendas to an image and as such we should be aware of the idealisations that are inherent in nostalgia. His final surmise is…

It is as untenable to claim that nostalgia is always conservative or reactionary as it is to assert that a more distanced or critical representation of history is always progressive.


Richy Carey                                                              10/10/13


[2] Reynolds, Simon. Retromania, Faber and Faber, 2011.