Why Hackers' Cyberpunk Soundtrack Still Matters, According to Director Iain Softley
“I saw Hackers as a music revolution. Their laptops were customized like guitars.”
Courtesy of Mark Tillie
Skating through the streets of New York, the protagonists of Hackers move with the graceful expedience of data flowing through a circuit board. The cast of the 1995 cult classic—which included Angelina Jolie in her first leading role, Jonny Lee Miller, and Matthew Lillard—inhabits a frenzied, psychedelic underworld of clubscapes and shimmering computer screens. The group of teenage hackers accidentally uncover a program stealing money from a massive corporation and are subsequently blamed for the virus. Fending off the FBI and a devious hacker called The Plague, they set out to prove their innocence.
Whether rollerblading, dancing, or just typing really fast, the film is driven by a soundtrack of thumping, kinetic rhythms. Acts like Prodigy and Massive Attack showcase the different styles of electronic music—from experimental trip-hop to the drum and bass influenced sound of big beat—that dominated the 90s. Now celebrating its twenty-year anniversary with a new Blu-Ray release, the film has also had theatrical screenings this fall in the United States and London.
Iain Softley, the film's director, began his career shooting music videos in the late 80s, before moving on to the big screen in 1994 with Backbeat, a film about the early days of the Beatles. Softley's interest in the cinematic aspects of music are just as clear in Hackers, released the following year. The movie highlights the relationship between an exploding musical movement and a society on the threshold of a new technological era. With elements of cyberpunk and psychedelia, Softley saw the film embracing a new counterculture: computers and electronic music take the places of 1960s youthful resistance and rock and roll.
We jumped on Skype and spoke with Softley earlier this month to discuss his film's twenty-year anniversary.
THUMP: How is the twentieth anniversary going?
Iain Softley: We've done screenings in Los Angeles, Denver, New York, Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston, Washington. There was like a mini re-release for the film. I was in New York on September 15 [the film's original release date] where I was joined by Jonny Lee Miller. Matthew Lillard introduced the film in LA. Then I came back to the UK and we had a couple of sell-out screenings in London. It's been really touching because it's all happened, really, by word of mouth.
Aesthetically, one of the first vibes in Hackers is acid house, rave—was that a part of your life?
Maybe in the periphery. I was very aware and very immersed in the music because I was doing music videos at the time.
Were you listening to electronic music back then?
I was. I would get cassette tapes made up and I would listen all the time in my car, at home, in the office. I ended up picking the bands for the Hackers soundtrack: Orbital, Left Field, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Underworld.
A cyber rock-and-roll film is really what i was trying to make. What I loved about this music was that it seemed to be the equivalent of a cyberdelic [cyberspace and psychedelia] world: a mind-expanding version of the psychedelic world in the 60s.
So that's where the name of the club "Cyberdelia" comes from for the club in the film?
Cyberdelia, is part dance club, skatepark, and arcade. It's like a fantasy. How did you come up with it?
Well originally in the script, I think it was a coffee bar. I said "No, no, no. It's got to be almost like their hallucination, like they dreamt up this place." I wanted a place that was a quintessence of all the things that I was picking up from the culture and that also would be the fantasy version of that club for those kids.
The main characters are clearly part of DJ and electronic music culture. Was that something you always meant to embed in the film?
I saw Hackers as an equivalent with the music revolution in the 60s. So, their laptops were customized like guitars. Music was everywhere. The music is what they would hear in their heads when they were delving into the databases and surfing through cyberspace.
The people that were the coolest in that world were the ones that hung out in clubs, so Razor and Blade. The scene with them onstage was actually shot at the Ministry of Sound in London.
What were your thoughts the first time you heard Orbital's "Halcyon (on and on)"?
I couldn't believe it when I first heard it. It has a transcendent quality to it. It just swept me away and I loved the way that the bass kicks in—and the anticipation in it as well. As soona s we put it on a rough cut of the film, it defined the way we cut that sequence. The sequence builds in the way that the song builds. The music is so wall to wall in the film and I love that. That was the thing that struck me when I saw it recently—to have music playing almost all the way through the film. It's really like another story driver.
You had a soundtrack and two additional "inspired by" albums for the film. Were you surprised that there was such such a voracious hunger for this kind of music?
Well it was crazy. It was so difficult to get the soundtrack released because nobody was interested in it. But, I had the opposite surprise as you: I was surprised it took so long for people to catch on to the album. I wasn't really surprised at all when there were a couple more albums afterwards, I was pleased. I was satisfied because it was—
It justified your belief in the music.
It's like I knew I wasn't being crazy.
I think in Canada, it went platinum. The first one. Yeah, actually I've got it on my wall. I'm looking at it right now.
Have you followed the trajectory of electronic music as it exists today?
Yeah. I'm still very interested. I did a film called Trap For Cinderella, which is a very low budget, personal film. The soundtrack I put onto that film is the soundtrack that my kids were listening to at the time, but I got to it independently. It's got people like Boys Noize, Chemical Brothers, James Blake, and Chase and Status.
With the saturation of electronic music, do you think it's lost it's counterculture aspect?
Almost certainly that's the case. But, I think what tends to happen at times like this is that people go back to their roots, to their origins: garage and house.
There is this this huge resurgence in vinyl now as well.
Well that doesn't surprise me at all. They closed all [the plants] down way too quickly and it's like in film, it's all gone digital. They say that film is dead and it's not dead. The new James Bond is going back to film. People prefer something that's got more texture.