Danny Boyle: a career in 10 songs

From the era-defining soundtrack to Trainspotting to the genre-hopping medley of his Olympics opening ceremony, the work of Danny Boyle brims with inspired musical selections. As his latest film, Trance, is released nationwide, Paul O’Callaghan charts the evolution of a filmmaker in 10 key tracks.

Paul O’Callaghan
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Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle has an impeccable knack for pairing arresting visuals with judiciously chosen music to instantly memorable effect – think of Ewan McGregor pounding the streets of Edinburgh to Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ in Trainspotting, or Slumdog Millionaire’s Mumbai street kids embarking on an illicit train journey to the sound of M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’.

He has long enjoyed a reputation as a filmmaker with cutting edge musical credentials, thanks largely to Trainspotting’s era-defining soundtrack, and his numerous collaborations with pioneering electronic act Underworld. But he is equally happy recycling pop staples from decades past, or calling on mainstream chart acts to record new songs to suit his needs. It’s an open-minded and truly experimental approach, in keeping with his habit for restlessly hopping between film genres.

The pervasive presence of music in his work has become one of his defining traits as a filmmaker, but has left him vulnerable to accusations of style over substance. Yet while his eagerness to remain in tune with the zeitgeist can result in the occasional misstep, his use of music is never frivolous or superficial. Take virtually any set piece from his body of work and you’ll find the soundtrack playing an integral role, for better or worse. In anticipation of the release of Trance this week, these 10 musical moments offer a snapshot overview of his career to date.

Shallow Grave (1994) – ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ by Nina Simone

The opening moments of Shallow Grave, in which a camera flies through the streets of Edinburgh to a pulsing Leftfield soundtrack, offer a taste of the kinetic filmmaking style that would become Boyle’s trademark. But 20 minutes into his debut feature, an elegant sequence set to Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ demonstrates that the director has substance to match the swagger.

Flatmates Alex (Ewan McGregor), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and David (Christopher Eccleston) have found their lodger Hugo (Keith Allen) dead in his room, together with a suitcase full of money. As the camera pans slowly over Hugo’s corpse, the song instils in the viewer a sense of wry detachment. This reflects the stance adopted by Alex, who firmly believes they should dispose of the body and keep the money. We see him nonchalantly going about his day at work and flirting with a girl in the office, and for a moment there is harmony between music and imagery. As we see the other two struggling with their moral dilemma, the song serves as a sustained reminder of Alex’s point of view, and subtly establishes that, as the dominant force in the household, the decision is ultimately his to make.

Trainspotting (1996) – ‘Temptation’ by Heaven 17

In the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s early successes, so much of 90s indie cinema strove to dazzle the viewer with self-conscious cleverness and empty shock tactics. With Trainspotting, Boyle understood that, in order to take your audience on an extreme journey, it’s important to first ground your story in something recognisably human. Hence before subjecting his characters to a barrage of heroin-induced misery, he delivers this exuberant sequence charting the sexual misadventures of three couples over the course of a night out, beautifully choreographed to Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’ before segueing into a cover of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ by Britpop band Sleeper.

The action kicks off in a nightclub decked out in the style of the Korova Milk Bar in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). The interior’s retro stylings, coupled with the blaring vintage pop music, render the time period difficult to pinpoint. In the club, Renton (Ewan McGregor) hits the dancefloor in pursuit of women, while his companions swap stories of relationship woes. It’s a scene that speaks directly to anyone who’s ever left the house on a Friday night with dreams of transcending their own mundane reality, and swiftly had those dreams punctured.

Meeting the effortlessly cool Diane (Kelly Macdonald), Renton heads back to hers for sex, while his friends engage in somewhat less fulfilling physical exchanges. The sequence is explicit but in no way gratuitous, as it provides meaningful insight into each of the characters involved. The night has unpleasant repercussions for all concerned, which are felt all the more keenly because we’ve been given such a revealing glimpse of their lives behind closed doors.

A Life Less Ordinary (1997) – ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ by Ash

1997 saw Boyle in the same position as a number of his musical peers, tasked with delivering the eagerly-awaited follow up to a phenomenally successful sophomore effort. A Life Less Ordinary was released within months of the third albums by Oasis and Radiohead, but sadly the film proved more of a Be Here Now than an OK Computer.

An absurdist, Americana-infused road movie that channels the spirit of Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the film can’t be criticised for lack of ambition, but it never amounts to more than the sum of its disparate parts. The film features a fourth-wall-breaking rendition of Bobby Darin’s ‘Beyond the Sea’, but a bank heist scene set to the sound of Brit rockers Ash is more representative of the overall experience.

Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz play a kidnapper and hostage, literally fated to cross paths after a pair of angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo) are dispensed from heaven to ensure that they fall in love. A sequence of bizarre mishaps culminates in this robbery, after which the couple embrace their destiny and kiss for the first time. From the offbeat Coen brothers-esque humour of the hold-up, to the couple’s Bonnie and Clyde-style posturing, everything in the scene feels like it’s been lifted straight from another film. The song is a perfect fit for the sequence – energetic and uplifting, but generic and indistinctive.

The Beach (2000) – ‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints

Boyle made no secret of the fact that his sole foray into large-scale Hollywood filmmaking was a frustrating ordeal. To this day he works with budgets under $20 million to ensure that he retains the authorial control he found being wrestled away from him on this glossy adaptation of Alex Garland’s backpacker thriller.

The film’s problems stem largely from the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as protagonist Richard. Presumably under pressure to capitalise on the young star’s heartthrob status, Boyle smoothes out the novel’s rough edges, reconfiguring an obsessive unrequited infatuation into a passionate holiday romance.

If you want to see what creative compromise looks like, behold the scene in which Richard finally gets together with Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen). Taking a moonlit stroll on the eponymous beach, the couple swim out to marvel at glowing plankton, before becoming overwhelmed with desire and enjoying a frankly impractical underwater kiss, all set to the overproduced sound of ‘Pure Shores’ by British girl band All Saints. It feels like a studied attempt to ape the romantic scenes of Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Titanic (1997) that catapulted DiCaprio to superstardom, but the result is closer to Twilight’s more overwrought moments. Its visual flair serves as a reminder that Boyle is behind the camera, but it’s hard not to imagine a studio executive breathing threateningly down his neck demanding more lingering glances and breathless trembling.

28 Days Later (2002) – ‘East Hastings’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Thankfully The Beach proved pivotal in a positive sense. 28 Days Later saw Boyle return to his roots in boundary-pushing, quintessentially British low-budget cinema. Defying perceived Hollywood wisdom, the director demonstrated that it’s entirely possible to produce ambitious, uncompromising genre fare on a small budget with no stars and still enjoy mainstream success – the film revived interest in the ailing zombie genre, and took more money at the US box office than its predecessor ($45 million to The Beach’s $39 million).

A now famous early sequence serves as a powerful statement of intent. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma to find himself in a deserted hospital. He steps out onto the streets of central London, to the ominous strains of ‘East Hastings’ by Canadian post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The track is integral to the scene’s impact, slowly increasing in intensity as Jim comes to the gradual realisation that he is alone in the city.

But it is tempting to attach greater significance to the choice of music here. Formed in 1994, Godspeed accrued a fiercely loyal cult following while resolutely refusing to play by the rules of the music industry. The film sees Boyle on comparably uncompromising form. Working within the confines of a £5 million budget, he simultaneously liberated himself from commercial pressure, while posing himself the significant challenge of delivering a sweeping vision of post-apocalyptic Britain using cheap DV cameras, without the aid of CGI. In doing so, he delivered his best work since Trainspotting.

Millions (2004) – ‘Hysteria’ by Muse

And so Boyle settled into the now familiar habit of cheerfully subverting expectations with each new project. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between 28 Days Later’s gruelling climax and this heartwarming tale of a devoutly Catholic seven-year-old boy who finds a suitcase full of money which he believes to be a gift from God.

Boyle’s adrenalised, hyperactive mode of filmmaking lends itself well to conveying a child’s perspective of the world. A central set piece depicting an ingenious train robbery, excitedly narrated by a schoolboy, delivers the giddy thrill of Boyle’s best work while keeping things appropriately family-friendly. The scene is neatly choreographed to the songs ‘Hysteria’ and ‘Blackout’ by Muse. The filmmaker and band are a fine match – both by this point has established themselves as eccentric crowd-pleasers with a flair for bombast and melodrama.

Sunshine (2007) – Adagio in D Minor by John Murphy

Even if you haven’t seen this enigmatic sci-fi thriller, chances are you’ve heard John Murphy’s stirring Adagio in D Minor, composed for the film and used in two key sequences. The film sees Boyle at his most magpie-like, liberally pilfering from the likes of Alien (1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), yet doing so with enough verve and imagination to ensure that the resulting mash-up feels fresh. Murphy effectively pulls off the same trick, taking major cues from Clint Mansell’s scores for Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Fountain (2006), with a respectful nod in the direction of Vangelis. The result is a piece of music that feels both instantly familiar and intensely cinematic. It has subsequently been reused in the media on numerous occasions, popping up everywhere from Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (2009) to a Dior perfume advert.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – ‘O… Saya’ by M.I.A.

Whereas The Beach saw Boyle attempting to pass himself of as a blockbuster filmmaker and coming unstuck, Slumdog sees him enthusiastically embracing his outsider status. From the outset he makes it explicitly clear that his view of India is that of the excitable tourist. An early sequence, in which a young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) runs way from police through the crowded city streets, feels deliberately engineered to remind the viewer that this is a vision of Mumbai brought to you by the director of Trainspotting.

Of course, the use of music is instructive. ‘O… Saya’, a collaboration between Indian composer A.R Rahman and British Sri Lankan artist M.I.A, is a bold blend of world music styles. Rahman’s Hindi chanting gives way to M.I.A’s patois-inflected rapping over a percussion-heavy Bhangra arrangement. It sets the tone perfectly for Boyle’s vibrant fusion of Dickensian melodrama and Bollywood musical, which The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called “the film world’s first globalised masterpiece”.

127 Hours (2010) – ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers

Boyle followed the sprawling Slumdog with this intimate and intense biopic of outdoorsman Aron Ralston, who in 2003 survived a canyoning accident by amputating his own arm. Though 127 Hours is ultimately an uplifting triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, the director admirably refuses to idealise his protagonist. James Franco plays Ralston as an infectiously energetic but childishly solipsistic individual, who seems to have modelled his life philosophy on the Pepsi Max advertising campaign of the 1990s.

A particularly memorable sequence, set to Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’, depicts Ralston summoning all of his strength to make a rope harness. As he fantasises about his escape, the camera soars across ravines before landing inside his van, parked miles away. In the back lies a glistening bottle of Gatorade. A subsequent montage of TV soft drink commercials brilliantly conveys Ralston’s tormented state of mind – if only he’d brought that bottle with him, or better yet told someone where he was going this weekend. If the choice of soundtrack seems a little naff, that’s surely precisely the point. The cruel truth is that Ralston has lived his life attempting to live up to ‘free spirit’ clichés perpetuated by the media, and is now paying an unimaginable price.

Olympic Opening Ceremony (2012) – ‘Abide with Me’ by Emeli Sandé  

The sight in 28 Days Later of an overturned double-decker bus in a deserted London street proved eerily prophetic of 2005’s July 7 bombings. In the film’s most poignant scene, Jim (Cillian Murphy) returns to his family home and finds his parents dead as the result of a suicide pact. They leave behind a note expressing a wish that Jim should never wake from his coma. Set to a haunting rendition of the Christian hymn ‘Abide with Me’, the sequence offers a short pause for reflection amid the film’s near-relentless carnage.

In perhaps the most meta-textual moment of his career, Boyle used the same musical accompaniment for his tribute to 7/7 during the Olympic Opening Ceremony, this time performed by Emeli Sandé. Again, its use signalled a dramatic and effective change of pace from the irrepressible energy that defined the ceremony as a whole.

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