Motion Picture Soundtrack: “Paper Planes”

Written by Film, Motion Picture Soundtrack

The soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting (1996) is widely considered to be one of the best soundtracks ever.  The songs Boyle selected for the soundtrack fulfill two primary goals – showcasing artists that the characters themselves adore, and setting the mood of the situations the songs accompany.  Music plays a huge part in the lives of the characters of Trainspotting, and very little of the music on the soundtrack was created specifically for the film – in fact relying heavily on musicians mentioned in the Irvin Welsh novel on which the film was based.  By contrast, the soundtrack of Boyle’s most recent production, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was written entirely by A.R. Rahman to fit the visual material that had already been produced, with the exception of a single song.

The Film: Slumdog Millionaire

The Artist: M.I.A.

The Song: “Paper Planes”

Who’s Who: British-born but Irish-blooded Danny Boyle began his career at a point of origin that is becoming less and less common in modern filmmaking – the theater.  Later, he began producing material for television (BBC Northern Ireland) and directed his first feature film Shallow Grave in 1994 with funding from Channel Four (a television broadcaster).  Reuniting with the same production team from Shallow Grave (including writer John Hodge, producer Andrew MacDonald, and actor Ewan McGregor), Boyle’s next project was the massively successful Trainspotting (1996).  After the indifferently received films A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and The Beach (2000), Boyle helped reinvent the zombie horror genre with 28 Days Later (2002).

Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, who uses the stage moniker M.I.A. (which stands for both Missing in Action and Missing in Acton) was born in London but returned to Sri Lanka with her family when she was only six months old so her father could help provide support for the Tamil militancy on the island.  After returning to London as a refugee several years later, M.I.A. learned English and eventually graduated from college with a degree in fine art, film, and video.  She first gained attention as a visual artist in 2001 with an exhibition of graffiti art and spray-painted canvasses that blended Tamil political images with British settings and products.  As a musician, M.I.A. first gained widespread popularity with her 2003 single “Galang.”  A very visibly pregnant M.I.A. recently dominated the headlines from the Grammy awards when she performed “Paper Planes” literally on her due date (though she actually delivered her first child two days later).

Why it Works: The audio editing as the scene begins, when the sound of the train overlaps the opening section of the song, is perfect, perfect, perfect.  It’s hard not to admire the fearlessness of the young actors as they clamber around the moving train.  During the overhead shot of the boys seated on the couping equipment between cars their peril is breathtakingly obvious – a single slip would lead to either boy’s death beneath the wheels of the train – yet is simply addressed as a matter of course.

The broad shots of rural India are beautiful and an important reminder that India consists of more than just urban slums.  The sense of the community aboard the train as a microeconomy is also fascinating.  And the way the scene closes, with a chubby boy busily stuffing his face alerting his elders to an ongoing theft – of food he clearly doesn’t need – is a brisk but poignant statement on the nature of greed.

What Goes Wrong: Having the young Jamal counting coins doesn’t quite fit with the overall flavor of the scene.  While the images match M.I.A.’s lyrics about “hustling,” the image implies that the boys are accumulating wealth – and they’re not.  They’re basically staying one step ahead of starvation.

Other Stuff: Apparently Boyle had been intending to use “Paper Planes” from early on in the production of Slumdog Millionaire.  He certainly chose the right scene for it.