English models like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell were both being loved and criticized, and the photographers who shot them were Brits as well; Nick Knight, David Sims, Juergen Teller, and Rakin. Meanwhile English designers were also taking off. Stella McCartney was no longer just famous for her father, Alexander McQueen raised his talents to a whole other level and headed to Givenchy, all while John Galliano took over Christian Dior. In the art world, Charles Saatchi showcased his now famous Sensation exhibit in London and New York which featured Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the same year that the U.S. mourned with the U.K. by the sudden passing of Princess Diana. And if it wasn’t Princess Diana on the news it was Tony Blair and Bill Clinton being best of mates, talking on the phone long into the night.
English authors were also extremely popular including Nick Hornby, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, Melvin Burgess, and Irvine Welsh to name a few. And all across the U.S. Britpop was being played in every major radio station and TV network, this includes music acts like Blur, Oasis, Radiohead, The Verve, Supergrass, Stone Roses, Placebo, Travis, Pulp, Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and tons others. There was even a collaboration between David Bowie and Trent Reznor on a track called I’m Afraid of Americans. And of course there was the Spice Girls, one of which, Posh, was dating perhaps the only soccer (Football, respectfully) player any American could name at the time. By the end of the decade even Madonna was speaking with a “British” accent.
At the box office, some English movies became huge hits including The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Shakespeare In Love, The Crying Game, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And then there was Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, although American, the movie was the apex of British paraphernalia, and it did help establish Elizabeth Hurley as a 90’s British bombshell.
Yet, in the midst of so many English movies was one small one with a big casts but no big names, but it perhaps best encapsulated why Americans fell in love with British youth culture; 1996’s Trainspotting. Maybe it was the wild opening scene with a devilishly handsome 25 year old Ewan McGregor running through cobbled streets while Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life blasted, and Ewan’s character narrating these words that did it:
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 good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. 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. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
Trainspotting left an imprint in the U.S. about how the U.K. must’ve been in the 90’s and it seems, at least from 4,000 miles away, that it was super fucking cool. The film revolved around heroin use, but that seemed symbolic more than meta. It really was about the celebration of taking control of your own life and the immediate burst of freedom that-that one act can generate, and even more so when you do it with friends. The film was explosive. It was the modern version of A Clockwork Orange. It was refreshingly relentless, obscene and reckless, it was an off-the-wall bender. It was full of charisma and energy, and it had one killer soundtrack (double disc!). It was a lot. Most importantly, it tried to beat you to a pulp to make you to “choose life.” Even if the message seemed somewhat-naive, it was exciting, particular if you were young and had yet to explore.
Yes, Trainspotting was grotesquely stylish and uber cool. Honorable mentions include America’s 1995 Kids, and France’s 1995 La Haine, both of which are masterpieces in their own right, but those are an entire other discussion (Personally, I think England’s actual better independent film than Trainspotting was 1999’s Ratcatcher). However, unlike those other films, Trainspotting was a bit different because it stood out from the British pop culture that everyone else was obsessing about, even though in hindsight Trainspotting was a bit mainstream, just a slightly different type of mainstream. Interesting enough, there are no real U.K. landmarks featured in the movie, in fact most of the film is shot in Scotland, but it had a romantic and exciting way of showing a far away land that sort of looked like America but was having much more fun, and young Americans, including myself, wanted a part of it. It seemed like a better alternative. It was honest, not glamorous. The friendships seemed like our real life friendships. It was the British Dazed and Confused but on acid.
The quick love affair America had with England faded away like so many other “British Invasions” before it. There were other music acts here and there afterwards like Muse, Coldplay and The Libertines. And movies similar to Trainspotting such as Snatch and Human Traffic, American ones too like Requiem For A Dream, Spun, Go, and Salt Lake City Punks. But Trainspotting left a much more lasting impression.
No one expects the sequel to Trainspotting to be as great as the original, because it doesn’t have to be. It just has to tell us that our old English friends are doing okay.