Fuck Trainspotting! Batman Forever Was the Soundtrack That Truly Epitomised the Nineties
My nineties wasn't Iggy Pop, Primal Scream and Joy Division. It was The Offspring, US rap, and the unquestionable sensuality of Seal.
When I was growing up in the 1990s, alongside the page ripped pictures of 3 Colours Red and Gwen Stefani that adorned the walls of my bedroom-cum-Batcave, there was a complimentary A4 promotional poster of Trainspotting, acquired from my local sticky-floored Odeon. When I first blu-tacked that image up next to Skin from Skunk Anansie, I hadn’t even seen the film. I just thought it was cool because it had been as heavily marketed as Um Bongo and its actors looked quite sexy. The credibility of my bedroom was improved by its presence. I would later watch it. I thought it was quite good.
As it celebrates its twentieth birthday, Danny Boyle’s film is being hailed by all quarters as the Brit flick that epitomised the 90s. We are told that Trainspotting’s indie-dance soundtrack “defined 90s cool” and provided the “perfect snapshot of 1996”. But the narrow roster of floppy-haired musicians that made up its OST wasn’t the 90s that I remember. Danny Boyle’s ode to Irvine Welsh might have encapsulated that decade for some people, but it certainly didn't for me.
Cast your mind back a bit. The once mighty Brit Awards used to have an award for 'Best Soundtrack', but it stopped in 2001, when it was presumably decreed that nobody would ever beat American Beauty. Prior to that, Pulp Fiction had won it in 1995, and Trainspotting won it in 1997. But sandwiched between those two giants stood a soundtrack that has been historically eclipsed by both and criminally underrated by all. I am talking about the Brit Award winner of Best Soundtrack in 1996. I am talking, dear reader, about Batman Forever.
The soundtracks to Trainspotting and Batman Forever could not be more different. Trainspotting used a plodding Blur song from the Essex group’s unexceptional baggy period ("Sing"), not to mention a farty-horned Damon Albarn solo piece. Far from capturing the innovations of the burgeoning electronic scene, it included one of the shortest and least essential compositions that Leftfield ever piddled out of their keyboards ("A Final Hit"). Apart from Pulp’s peerlessly bittersweet "Mile End", in fact, all the soundtrack’s best moments are vintage classics rather than 90s hits: Iggy Pop’s "Lust For Life" (1977), Lou Reed’s "Perfect Day" (1972), Brian Eno’s "Deep Blue Day" (1983), New Order’s "Temptation" (1987 version) and Sleeper’s carbon copy of Blondie’s "Atomic" (1979). Other than Carol “KYO” Leeming’s appearance on Bedrock’s token trance track, Trainspotting’s soundtrack is also staggeringly one dimensional. As a collection of songs that supposedly captured Britain at a point in time and “changed music”, it made it look like we were listening exclusively to white, mostly male guitar players, pausing only to shout “LAGER LAGER LAGER” when Underworld came on.
For all the good that Trainspotting’s characters did in humanising those on the fringes of society, few of us spent the 90s retrieving opium suppositories from shit-brimming toilets or celebrating lucrative drug deals with Keith Allen by sticking Sleeper on the jukebox. All my memories are rife with hearing American rap and R&B on every radio station on the school run, watching emo and alt-rock videos on MTV2, drinking Hooch to the latest Offspring album with my mate’s older brother as he failed to convince me that The Joshua Tree was some kind of masterpiece and, above all, the omnipresent sensuality of Seal. Where are the nods to all this? I’ll tell you where… They’re housed within a dusty jewel case adorned by a picture of Val Kilmer in a pointy-eared mask.
The nineties was a weird time for Batman. Tim Burton’s preceding stabs had been dark, sinister and nightmarish affairs, particularly the second instalment. I mean, in Batman Returns, The Penguin bit off somebody’s bloody nose, Catwoman’s dominatrix look was only a few physical mutilations away from one of Hellraiser’s gimpy demons, and Christopher Walken came sporting the reliably hair-raising attribute of his own face. It was a relief, then, when director Joel Schumacher of St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys fame was hired to bring a more family-friendly, cartoon-strip and delightfully camp atmosphere to the franchise. This was the mid-90s, after all; you couldn’t have Bruce Wayne moping around his mansion like he still spent most of his time kneeling infront of Robert Smith shrines. Out went Michael Keaton, Danny Elfman and grittily realistic special effects. In came Val Kilmer, Method Man, Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones of The Fugitive fame with half his face painted purple like a budget pantomime.
It was a move that wrestled the Dark Knight from the sweaty clutches of graphic novel-reading grownups and rightfully handed him back to the kids. You could sit in the cinema and just relax to the wacky superhero romp of Batman Forever, with its ridiculous baddies and vivid, almost dreamlike, comic-book aesthetic. There were none of Tom Hardy’s anti-capitalist mumblings. No Liam Neeson as a goatee-bearded ghost and plot holes so large you could conveniently fill them with the entire Gotham City police force. I didn't want a three-hour pseudo-philosophical noir with a problematic subtext promoting right-wing Victorian philanthropy over genuine social change. I wanted Jim Carrey in a tight green Riddler onesie, shouting the word “JOYGASM”. I wanted Nicole Kidman as a strong and intelligent love interest who mischievously abuses her Bat-Signal privileges for the sake of a couple of minutes of harmless rooftop flirtation. And I wanted an era-defining soundtrack.
It was all there. Batman Forever OST had bouncy pop-punk (The Offspring’s cover of "Smash It Up"), trippy slacker alt-rock (Flaming Lips’ "Bad Days"), heart-on-sleeve emo (Sunny Day Real Estate), moody slowcore (Mazzy Star), East-Coast hip-hop (Method Man), and slick R&B (Brandy). For a glossy Hollywood production, it also did a Bat-tastic job of promoting some local talent otherwise neglected by Trainspotting, such as brooding Bristolian trip-hoppers Massive Attack, Scotland’s Eddi Reader, Ireland’s The Devlins and, of course, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" – one of the all-time top 3 least appalling U2 songs.
But its most dazzling moment, of course, was Seal’s majestic "Kiss From A Rose", one of the most successful and heart-rending British soul tracks of all time. Thanks to the commercial boost it gained through Batman Forever, this soaring power ballad is fully cemented into our cultural consciousness. It’s habitually covered by everyone from symphonic Finnish metal bands, through countless talent show wannabes, to the middle-aged taxi driver who sings a cappella at my local pub’s open-mic night. While Seal’s vocal gymnastics are utterly inimitable, screaming along to his “Baaab-ehh!” line is just as much fun when sober as drunk. You’ll also find that putting this on at a party is a more effective social bonding tool than paintballing, 'Never Have I Ever', or a world war. And it’s got a freaking oboe solo.
While the career of numerous Trainspotting artists would peak around the time of that soundtrack, several of Batman Forever’s trendier musicians would go on to much greater things. It helped Nick Cave make his mid-90s career transition from scary goth bloke capable of killing to highly respected, broadsheet-endorsed, Kylie-collaborating institution. Incidentally, Trainspotting did not single-handedly resurrect Iggy Pop’s career, like it’s often credited. The groundwork had been done the previous year by Michael Hutchence’s haunting cover of "The Passenger", for, you guessed it, Batman Forever.
Ultimately, Trainspotting did not “define” the nineties. It wasn’t even set in the nineties. A true “snapshot of 1996” is much more likely to have thrown up a dodgy Method Man track than a Damon Albarn deep cut. Further to that, Trainspotting did not herald a brave new era of British cinema, liberating us from the oppression of big budget superhero franchises. It ushered in films like Twin Town, Ewan McGregor as an unconvincing romantic lead, and the storm-in-a-teacup that was Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. The future wasn’t bravely independent British cinema. The future was, for better or worse, shameless geekdom, endless comic book reboots, and tasteful-to-sordid cosplay conventions. So let’s stop kidding ourselves about choosing life. Choose reality, choose a fucking big television, and choose Batman Forever.
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