Though Leonardo DiCaprio broke hearts and box-office records with his performance in Titanic, his next commercial film The Beach was a risk. Following up from the Woody Allen film festival flick Celebrity and the absolutely terrible The Man In The Iron Mask (for which DiCaprio won a Raspberry), it attempted to bridge the gap between blockbuster and independent film and, ultimately, failed critically and commercially. Despite this, The Beach achieved cult status as a film and 18 years later its story of a fresh-faced American backpacker seeking to find himself in Thailand remains interminably tied into the idea of taking a gap year.
Fittingly for a film based around travel, Pete 'Global Ambassador of Electronic Music' Tong supervised its soundtrack. When I spoke to Pete, he told me that he “was going to Thailand at the time every Christmas” and that “backpacking in Thailand in the 90s was a very foreign, daring experience, especially if you were super young.” In the time since Pete was flying to Thailand, academics, charities, and think tanks have warned of the gap year experience turning into a form of "new colonialism" that 'others' the people who were already living in those "foreign, daring" places. Before all that, The Beach’s stunning depictions of languid lagoons and velvet sand would be captured on cameras—similar to the one that the character Françoise uses—for years to come, due in part to the success of the film.
That said, for all its visual beauty, the real dazzle of The Beach lies in its soundtrack. Like Trainspotting (also directed by Boyle), it is full of tunes rather than just an original score, and features Underworld (and echoes of Begby through Robert Carlisle as Daffy). Its two biggest tracks, Moby's “Porcelain” and All Saints' “Pure Shores” were what A&R wet dreams are made of, but still managed to maintain a sense of cool. Both sounded as fresh and exciting as the first taste of mirage-worthy water tasted on the beach.
This vitality and coolness also stemmed from the record being what Pete calls a "cultural statement of the time… when you listen to the soundtrack it's almost like the film was a musical." The soundtrack taps into a culture that's not only electronic but quintessentially Balearic. From the whispered vocals of Dario G's “Voices” to the trip-hop breaks of “Lonely Soul” (featuring Richard Ashcroft, of course) The Beach soundtrack has the essence of chill-out and also the euphoric melodies of trance that would meander into the glistening water at beach parties around the time.
In this way, although the film is set in Thailand, it also very much captures the sound of Ibiza—another island paradise that UK backpackers have been making pilgrimages to for the last two decades. When Balearic beat was brought back from Ibiza in 1987 to London clubs such as Shoom and the Project Club, so were the flared-to-the-max harem-pants, the holiday-maker braids and "Eastern" symbols from the Thai writing system – more often than not in the form of tattoos that were assumed to be deep but probably read something entirely different. The crux of Balearic was that almost any style of music could be woven together like the Technicolor threads of those hemp shirts, and The Beach sees this through its blend of guitar music and Britpop (New Order and Blur) with reggae (Bob Marley, Lee Scratch Perry) and electronica.
What makes it different from yet another Café Del Mar or Balearic beat compilation, though, is its inclusion of darker and harder sounds. Throughout the film, there are constant references to Paradise turning into "parasites" and its waters becoming diseased by cancerous unknowns. Equally, the blissful nugs of chill-out in The Beach's soundtrack are interspersed with darker, grittier bits: from the industrial sounds of Leftfield's “Snakeblood” to the bad-trip acid of Faithless' “Woozy.” Ultimately this plays upon the idea that Utopia is just a few people (and symbolically, a few letters) away from Dystopia. Not unlike the unwanted tourists creep who their way onto the beach in the film, its soundtrack has more ominous sounds snaking their way in and making even the most euphoric tracks have a twisted edge.
This darkness also allows for a soundtrack that can act as critique of backpacking. The trouble in paradise is partially created not only by outsiders, but also the realization that what you are doing is not new. The first ever UK Department of Education report on gap years in 2010 identified several trends: they are done by people from "white backgrounds," "families of higher socio-economic status," "independent schools," "East or Southern England," and people who "believe they have less control over their own lives" and "smoke cannabis." To be honest, a government funded report wasn't really needed to paint a picture of the 'gap yah' stereotype, but it does provide keywords that could have come from the storyboard for some of The Beach's residents. After all, most of the people who go to Southeast Asia, and more specifically the southeast Thailand depicted in the film, are from the southeast of England. Although Leonardo DiCaprio's Richard may be an American—he’s young, white and rich—and follows the dank trail of Thai landrace that other privileged backpackers had already left behind.
The hardest track of the film—Ibiza and rave classic “Yeke Yeke (Hardfloor Remix)”—is positioned perfectly when Sal (Tilda Swinton) and Richard are forced to go back to mainland Koh Phangan to get supplies. As “Yeke Yeke's” bass pulsates from the beaches, Richard opines that “in one moment I understood more clearly than ever why we were special, why we were secret. Because if we didn't, sooner or later, we'd turn into this”—with this being the tourist side of the island. It illustrates the kind of trouble in paradise and impossibility for secrecy that plagues Ibiza and Thailand retreats. As Pete Tong put it to me, “When it comes to beaches, it feels like paradise. When you come back to it ten years later and there are hotels and dozens of people the vibe has gone.” The draft script's line that "this was why we kept the secret. If these assholes ever found out about our island they'd take just one night to spoil it forever" could as easily have been from the mouths of Balearic beat bohos, prophesying the tech house laddiness that would wash ashore onto Ibiza.
It's this perfectly pre-rolled mix of trippy bliss and gritty darkness that makes The Beach soundtrack eternally fresh. Pete Tong believes the songs are “what makes the film watchable time and time again”—and it's hard to disagree. After a first watch, the progression of the music becomes the real journey of interest, and the visuals start to become a kind of backing track to the sonic forefront. But while Pete calls it a musical, I reckon The Beach has elements of a music video too, coming at a liminal time of high-end MTV graphics, cheesy trance and voiceovers and the darker breakdown of original rave. Regardless of the "u" or "dys" prefixes, Thailand—or The Beach specifically—still contains a topos, or place of artistic interest; and it's the soundtrack's mixture of mainstream and downstream currents that will pull you ashore to take a closer look.
You can find Kyle on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.