British filmmaker Danny Boyle, whose new film -- a mind-melting hypnotism thriller called "Trance" -- is showing nationwide, is known for his intense creative collaborations between writers like Alex Garland and John Hodge, and (for a while at least) actors like Ewan McGregor. But one of his most important and frequently overlooked collaborative relationships is with the British dance duo Underworld (nee Karl Hyde and Rick Smith), who have provided music for a number of Boyle projects, both film and otherwise, including last summer's Olympics Opening Ceremony. We got to chat with one half of Underworld, Rick Smith, about his various collaborations with Boyle, including the dizzying score for "Trance," which he completed without his frequent partner Hyde.
There are a number of memorable musical moments in "Trainspotting," Boyle's sophomore effort and the film that would effectively launch his career as one of the most fearless and utterly brilliant filmmakers in the world, including, of course, Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," ironically repurposed for the story of a bunch of bottom-feeding heroin addicts. But, as we pointed out in our recent feature 10 Best Music Moments In Danny Boyle's Movies, the most singularly unforgettable song has got to be Underworld's "Born Slippy" (actually the ".NUXX mix" of the song, but who's counting?) The song is positively euphoric and, used at the very end of the movie, leaves the story, which had previously been defined by a trip through a filthy toilet and a dead baby demonically crawling across a ceiling, on a warmly optimistic, uplifting note. It turns out Underworld had been used as a temp score to the movie before music was finalized.
“Danny had used our album Dubnobasswithmyheadman as a map and cut rough versions of the film with it," Smith explained. He then recounts how Boyle came across non-album track "Born Slippy:" "The story is that he was in a record shop in SoHo in London and saw, in the rack, this 12” of 'Born Slippy' and went, ‘Hang on a second. I don’t have that. That’s not on the album,’ bought it, listened to it, and (so he says) immediately went, ‘That’s the end of the film.’ And that was fortuitous for us.”
When he finally saw it used in the movie, Smith was blown away. “It was a joy," he said. "When the request came through from Danny and his office, to use the piece and another 12” that was in the film....for various reasons at the time we got a lot of requests from people to use the music. And it seemed to be for scenes for films that were violent club scenes with angry people and machine guns. So we weren’t that keen on the idea." This all turned around after they had been shown a portion of the film. "Danny showed us about ten or fifteen minutes of the film and got to the part when Renton went down the lavatory and it was like, ‘Absolutely, Danny can use anything he wants.’”
By the time Boyle’s exuberant (if somewhat unfocused) “Trainspotting” follow-up “A Life Less Ordinary” rolled around, he could have anyone he wanted for the soundtrack - and did. Boyle assembled a massive all-star roster, which included new or re-recorded tracks by Beck, The Cardigans, The Prodigy, R.E.M., Ash and, of course, Underworld, whose dreamy “Oh” is still a highlight of both the album and the film. “It was lovely,” Smith says about being invited back to the Boyle party. “And a little bit of a surprise. It was a great opportunity to dip our toes in the water again, really. Because it was a piece we composed to picture and for the scene, after some brief discussions with Danny.”
Smith said the experience on “Life Less Ordinary” would come to define how their working relationship functions. “To be honest, that’s been the case often – Danny getting in touch, saying, ‘I wonder if you could do this…,’” Smith said. “It’s nice to be asked and I’ve always loved film, been inspired by film, ever since I was a little boy back in Wales. It’s been a great journey.”
When asked to elaborate, Smith said, “I always gush and glow when working with Danny. He's brilliant to collaborate with and it is an absolute collaboration, as well. He invests time and energy – my favorite thing with working with Danny is the time we regularly get to spend in the studio. I play him ideas that I have or have heard – bits for the film, playing stuff that he might not have heard, I dig up stuff I've done on tour that maybe never made it to release. He's very encouraging and able to see beneath, to the layers of an idea."
There was a lot riding on 2000's "The Beach," most notably because it was superstar Leonardo DiCaprio's follow-up to "Titanic" (not to mention Boyle's bid at redemption after the indifferently received "A Life Less Ordinary"). While it still exists as an odd fit for filmmaker and subject matter (afterwards, Boyle insisted that he's a "city director" and that he shouldn't have attempted something as naturalistic as "The Beach"), the film is still a beguiling, incredibly weird movie that seems inspired by videogames, "Apocalypse Now," and dreamy nature documentaries.
For the film, Underworld composed a song called "8 Ball," that remains one of their greatest tracks, complete with hum-along lyrics and a bouncy backbone. "Funnily enough, I think it's one of Danny's all-time favorite tunes. And it's one of my all-time favorites as well," Smith said. When we asked if the band felt any of the outside pressures or expectations that were being placed upon the movie (rightfully or otherwise), he said no. "I felt no added pressure," Smith said. "I think most composers will tell you that in the very early stages, you feel like your last good idea you had was the last good idea you'll ever have. My memories were very 'Oh god what am I going to do,' and somehow things come together. That piece was a kind of strange construction – the journey of writing and putting it together felt good."
After that journey was over, though, the band had a sensation that they had captured something special. "I knew when I finished it there was something about it – it makes you feel warm and lovely," Smith explained. He then added: "I love the simplicity of it and the way it builds." So do we.