The cast of 'Hackers'
Photo courtesy of IMDB / MGM/UA Distribution Co.
"Hack The Planet!" An Oral History Of Hackers' Soundtrack & Score
Twenty-five years after the release of Hackers, two things outlived the time of crushed cans of Jolt cola, skateboarding megavillains, and Matthew Lillard's braided pigtails: the vibrant community of electronic music and rebellion against those attempting to shut down information. It’s a world where payphones are essential technology, floppy disks play into high espionage and Marc Anthony is a secret service agent. It’s a time when the four most predictable passwords were "Love, Secret, Sex and God." But truly unprecedented was Hackers' mercurial soundtrack and score, a beguiling coalescence that mirrored the face and sound of an era. Much like the hackers’ experience of breaking through societal barriers, the film’s music winds its way through a bramble of wires before reaching techno-nirvana. The synergy of hackers and a new wave of electronic musicians came together powerfully, pushing into new, undiscovered territory, and sharing in the discovery as a community. From The Prodigy’s "Voodoo People" scoring a first meeting to Massive Attack’s "Protection" soothing a romantic scene: the Hackers soundtrack was a rapturous primitive trip for outsiders who were insiders.
Hackers follows a crew of high schoolers led by a very young Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller (under the codenames Crash Override and Acid Burn) fighting against The Plague, a hacker turned corporate tech security expert framing the kids for his own malicious schemes. At the dawn of the internet as we know it, that meant visualizing the inside of a computer as buildings fading into circuit boards. Furious typing is matched with twisted synths, and breaking through firewalls is scored by opening up the ambient heavens a la the Math Lady meme.
Director Iain Softley and composer Simon Boswell’s conjurative imagination of what the present was and what the future could be fused invention and innovation, psychedelia, trip-hop, and electronics into a hallucinatory heroes’ journey. The film harnessed a burgeoning scene taking over the U.K. and Europe and introduced it to outsiders in the U.S. The music was so beloved that the film spawned three soundtrack releases, two of which included tracks inspired by the film. However, some of Boswell’s compositions and other songs used in the film remained unreleased—including a surprise appearance by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. That changes, though, with an upcoming Record Store Day release, a double-vinyl set in support of the film’s anniversary.
To honor the cult favorite film’s invigorating exploration of a musical movement on Hackers’ 25th anniversary, the film’s director, composer, actors, costume designer and several contributing musicians reflect on the soundtrack’s emergence from a new wave of club music, the film’s prescient themes, and the feeling of community within and resulting from Hackers.
The Birth of a New Rebel Music
Ian Softley, Director: I grew up being absorbed in music as much as I was with film. Growing up in London, music was everywhere. And then when I went to work in television in Manchester and Liverpool, I would see bands all the time, whether it was New Order or various blues bands or reggae. That was the first inspiration for me to write about music and I was really happy for Hackers to be a way of carrying that on. My assistant for the film, Gala Wright, was a sort of creative collaborator. I was listening quite broadly, but she would help out by suggesting tracks. The music supervisor, Bob Last, was looking out for bands that had more profile, hence Prodigy and Massive Attack.
Rob Birch, Stereo MC's: At the time it was [seen as] rebel music. It was the young years of this exciting wave of electronic music, which created what we have now.
Renoly Santiago, Actor, The Phantom Phreak: That music was just part of my everyday life. That era felt like the launch of what we today call electronic dance music, or EDM. Back then we called it dance music, or raver music. I really was like a club kid listening to house music.
Roger Burton, Costume Designer: I was very familiar with the electronic music scene in the U.K. and Europe, but then I went on a trip to N.Y.C. and got inspired by the club culture. The fetish and cross-dressing scene and all these subcultures fuelled my creative decisions, so Hackers is loaded with subtle fashion references that people still enjoy spotting.
Laurence Mason, Actor, Lord Nikon: Coming from New York, I've always been into the club scene and the fashion scene. Trip-hop, acid house, rave, tribal, all this music has a primitive element to them, a universality speaks to everyone. They weren't using traditional instruments, but they did still have that primal thing. And then of course Iain definitely brought some of the ‘60s psychedelic into it, which was going on as well. I actually even helped with security for [Stereo MC’s] first appearance in New York City. I grew up with Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Deep Purple, so for me to rebel, I got into Prodigy, Tricky and Massive Attack. I've always been into science-fiction. I was a big fan of William Gibson and cyberpunk.
"Original Bedroom Rockers"
Paul Hartnoll, Orbital: I was raised by wolves! I taught myself in the backwaters of the middle of nowhere in Kent. [Laughs.] We had no idea what we were doing. I was into electronic music, and back then you just decided to copy what you like. You might have completely the wrong equipment, but you don't know that, so you get it done anyway and it ends up sounding different. If people ever say, "How'd you get your original sound?" I say, "I tried to copy other people and got it wrong." People always think I'm joking when I say that, but I'm not.
Peter Kruder, Kruder & Dorfmeister: It's actually just bedroom producers on the Hackers soundtrack. Everybody who's on that soundtrack literally made their music at home, from Orbital to Prodigy. It's probably one of the first movies that just had music made at home. We literally learned everything by doing it ourselves because there was no internet to learn from. We did everything by trial and error. It was a lot of work and a lot of hard stuff to learn in order to sound like other records. Most acts at that time were doing everything themselves. Everybody had their own label. We were always sharing information with other people, meeting at clubs or festivals. It was always an open community helping each other. That vibe stayed with people from that generation.
Richard Dorfmeister, Kruder & Dorfmeister: We actually lived in the studio. We were all like bedroom producers, just constantly programming and doing music. We were very dedicated and motivated by the fact that it was possible to do something without going to the studio, just to do it yourself with this electronic bedroom revolution.
Simon Boswell, Composer: I started composing in 1985, around the same time synthesizers and samples were becoming the thing for DJs. So, technologically, that’s what I was doing all the way through. It was actually something of an accident that I got to be a film composer. I'd been in various bands from punk time onwards. I was in a band that was less punk and more pop and toured with Blondie, but we weren't very successful. None of the bands I was in were very successful, so I became a record producer. I was working in Rome, producing Italian pop stars and rock stars, and was introduced to a horror director called Dario Argento at a party. He had seen my band play in Rome and asked me to help out on this first soundtrack, which was a movie called Phenomena. And it just went from there.
It's not normal that the film composer gets hired earlier on, but Iain knew me. So I went down to the studios just outside London where they were filming. I passed Angelina Jolie in the corridor and I stopped to introduce myself. I said the most stupid thing I've ever said: "Oh hi, pleased to meet you. I really love your dad's work." And she just looked me up and down and walked off because she and John Voight weren't getting on. [Laughs.] Also, Johnny Lee Miller owes me more than one beer. He got cast in Trainspotting because of me. Danny Boyle came down to set because I'd worked with him before, on Shallow Grave.
A Timeless Trip Through A Cyber Hallucination
Softley: My first film was called Backbeat, and music was hugely important to that because it was partly about the Beatles in Hamburg. We had a great soundtrack for that, with Don Was producing and an amazing grunge supergroup with Dave Grohl, Mike Mills, Dave Pirner, Thurston Moore and Greg Dulli. So when Hackers came next, we had a screening with a number of record companies where we had early cuts of the film and they were like, "We thought it was going to be indie guitar music, grunge. Nobody in America listens to techno." And I said, "Well, that's the music that's right for the movie. It's a cyberpunk movie trying to anticipate the internet as a sort of equivalent for that generation’s rock and roll." The music had to be futuristic and ambient. The film was sort of like a cyber hallucination in the minds of the people involved and the music was completely integrated with the storytelling of the film. And the more time passed, then the more people realized that and those bands started to become more famous.
Mason: Iain’s love of music fueled everything, but it didn’t end there. I went to meet Iain in New York and I guess I got lucky because there was a newspaper on the seat next to me on the train ride there, and there was a story about some Nigerian hackers pulling scams. So, I think I actually had something intelligent to say while I was there. It was serendipitous. But Iain cast it perfectly. He knew exactly who we were or at least who we could be and he put those colors or those flavors together. Training-wise, we had some hackers help us at least make it look like we knew how to type and we had a New York Rangers professional hockey player teach us how to skate. None of us, aside from maybe Matthew Lillard, could skate at all.
Santiago: Iain also gave us copies of the book Neuromancer and talked about the outlandish costuming and sense of genre in the film Brazil. He would talk a lot about music and the effect of music on culture. To him, Hackers was like "finding the new rock and roll," which I think really correlates to the soundtrack.
Softley: There was that searching for new frontiers, a mix of music and technology. The idea for the film was that it was like they were in a band, so we actually put guitar straps on their laptops.
The film is a technological trip in many ways, like a hallucination, a fantasy world of data and technology. The costumes reflected that and I wanted music that evoked that sense of being transported. It's very dreamlike in many ways, as well as an amazing driving dance that takes over your whole body. That combination has been consistent with house music over the years. You have these bass beats that vibrate through your body, but then laid on top of that is this almost orchestral, hymn-like, mercurial, mysterious nature. Even the older people that were involved in the early days of the internet had been the hippies in San Francisco. I also went with the designer and the costume designer to [London nightclub] Ministry of Sound.
Burton: At the time, the internet was relatively new and unknown to most people, and I became interested in it through Wired magazine, as well as the growing electronic music scene and club fashion particularly in London and N.Y.C. I envisaged this exciting underground movement of hackers who lived by their own rules and dressed in an eclectic array of styles that were drawn from many different subcultures and zine and pop culture references, but were somehow timeless.
Santiago: They wanted to go far-fetched with the costumes, but now even the stuff we wore looks a lot more normal. For instance, the leopard suit I wore! Guys hardly ever wore that. You might've seen leopard on Rod Stewart or maybe Mick Jagger. But there were some people that dressed that way and still do, so we were celebrating that. The whole cast went out to the club together, and then another time we went to a Pink Floyd concert. David Gilmour was involved in the soundtrack and he did such a beautiful job. Even Marc Anthony came along to the concert. We sat in the V.I.P. section and went to a party afterwards.
"I'm Gonna Get Myself Connected"
Boswell: For almost 10 years before Hackers, I’d been doing electronic scores more in the vein of Tangerine Dream. Iain and I both realized that my film music was converging on this new kind of club scene or rave scene in the U.K. And when he asked me to do Hackers, he was going out to clubs and really quickly picking up on the EDM music scene. Iain was playing me all of this stuff by the Prodigy, Orbital, Underworld, all of this quite aggressive but moody EDM music.
Alex Paterson, The Orb: I looked at the soundtrack, and it was a bunch of mates of mine from the clubbing days back in London. We never really got picked up to do film scores. We’ve never been able to be pigeonholed, and that’s the fun of the game for me.
Kruder, Kruder & Dorfmeister: We heard about the film’s story and it sounded like a pretty good idea. We prefer things that are a little off and this idea was a little bit off because it was probably the first movie that put nerds on a higher level and celebrated being a nerd.
Jesse Bradford, Actor, Joey: I don't tend to rewatch movies that I'm in, but I avidly listened to the Hackers soundtrack from 15 to 17 years old. Growing up in semi-suburban Connecticut, it was a great compilation of the emergence of a new style of music, early electronic or whatever a devotee would choose to call it. At the time I remember listening to the Prodigy and it made me feel, amongst my peers, like I caught wind of something a little early, something inspiring.
Birch, Stereo MC’s: When we were asked if we'd be up for putting the song on the soundtrack, we had a vague idea of what the movie was about. At that point, I didn't have a computer and I didn't really know much about the internet. I thought hacking was something the government and the police did. Let's face it, they were all doing it as much as anyone else was—and they still are. We used to have our recording studio in the living room. Nick [Hallam] would be watching TV with his girlfriend and I'd have the headphones on, putting beats together. We just couldn't get an idea for the verses and all of that. There were those race riots in America, when Rodney King had been brutalized by police officers, and we finished it at the same time as that. That was in the atmosphere when we made that record. It was a very unsettled social climate.
Boswell: No one knew what hackers were really, but subsequently so many people have come up to me, saying, "Oh, Hackers was my favorite movie. I grew up with that film!" And many of them are nerdy programmers who told me they liked that my music was quite psychedelic because they used to take acid and do programming. When we go inside the computer in the film, I was using backwards guitars, strange psychedelic electronic music. I got to use my favorite sounds I've loved ever since the '60s, which is the Mellotron sound in "Strawberry Fields Forever." I had to tie these different acts together and give the movie some emotional heart. My job was to make you care about these kids. Film music is the consciousness of a movie. That gives it a resonance, a depth. My job was also to make some of the drama and the darkness of the bad guys in it. Most of the soundtrack with those bands is kind of what you imagined the kids were listening to. My job was to be the stuff they weren't listening to, but more like what they were feeling. There are really cheesy moments in Hackers, which is probably why people like it as well [Laughs], but it was incredibly prescient in its vision of the future.
Hartnoll, Orbital: Hackers came along at the same time as we got asked to do a piece of music for the very first PlayStation system for a game called Wipeout, which they'd feature in the film. [Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller] play a kind of souped up, fictitious version of it. Hackers was one of the early adopters, a film that wasn't afraid to use dance music in the score. Up until that point we complained that even though dance music was sweeping the world, film music was really old-fashioned. I created "Halcyon" after a big Saturday night out. On Sunday I was sitting around drinking and smoking with friends around my house, where my little studio was. I just said to someone, "I'm going to have a go at making a pop song." It was all done on a 909 drum machine, an R-8 drum machine, a Korg Wavestation, the Yamaha DX100 for the bass line, and an Emax 2 sampler. I sampled Kirsty Hawkshaw from the beginning of "It’s A Fine Day" by Opus III, because she was a friend of mine and we'd always said we'd do a track together. And then my friend Paul Isaac said, "Why don't you turn that voice backwards?" and we both said, "Oh, that's really good. That's good."
"Halcyon" is quite seductive in a friendly and all-encompassing way. It’s one of those instrumental, abstract tracks that really affects people, especially with its slow, ambient lovely beginning. Hackers starts off with a sad moment, but then it comes in with the beat and you think, "Yeah, maybe there's some hope here."
Kruder, Kruder & Dorfmeister: All our tracks took pretty long to do, in general, because it was rather difficult to get the songs the way we wanted them. That whole way of working was difficult. Now I can make a beat in five minutes, but back then you had to set the record, cut it up, and loop it, and each step took a million years. And then you went through the whole process, and sometimes you found out that it didn't really work and you had to scrap it and start again. But we really enjoyed it. It was a challenge to conquer the instruments that we used and to make things sound proper and professional.
Mason: One thing that I thought worked really well was the last cut, by Squeeze, with Johnny and Angie in the pool. It's such a special moment, and a departure from the rest of the soundtrack. Obviously those two were deeply in love at that point. Who knows how much acting was involved. It's just very sweet. It's these two outsiders that found each other. These weren't the mainstream kids, the in-crowd. It's hard being a young person, but if you can find your tribe, you can have a good life and you look at things a little differently.
Softley: We did a limited soundtrack to accompany the U.K. release, which was about six months after the U.S. release. Those acts already had a following in the U.K. so that made a lot of sense. But for some reason we weren't able to get the rights for the tracks that Guy Pratt did with David Gilmour. We're thrilled that that's now on the re-release for Record Store Day. And also for the first time we will have an album that's released on double-vinyl, and it has great art that accompanies it.
Angelina Jolie (left) and Jonny Lee Miller (right)
Photo courtesy of IMDB / MGM
Every Generation Has Its Tribe
Mason: It is a movie, at its very essence, about youth. Each generation that sees it, it speaks to them. It just taps right into that spirit. All I can do is smile. I just feel very lucky I got to be a part of it. People constantly ask me, "When is number two coming out?" And I say, "Ask Angie." [Laughs.] Cause we're all still here, thank god. I mean, they should hurry up! It's still very relevant and a sequel would do really well.
Softley: I attended this technology and techno festival that was full of people that are high up in these multimillion-pound companies, and many of them said they were hugely influenced by Hackers or they associated with it. It felt like somebody was understanding who they were. And they turned up at the festival dressed like Acid Burn, with piercings and tattoos and crop tops and spiky hair.
Burton: Like Rebel Without a Cause, it deals with teenage angst that kids of that age can still really relate to—in fact so much so that even 25 years on I still receive regular emails and fan mail about it.
Boswell: The film [gained a cult following] because it didn't conform. That's probably why it wasn't successful at the time as well. It was such a brave new world. A lot of people just didn't get it. It wasn't familiar to them. They thought, "Who the f**k are these kids? What are they doing?" They weren't a subculture that most people were familiar with. The story does work on a thriller level. The thing about Hackers was it was quite brash and fresh, a history lesson.
Bradford: The fact that it’s held up so long says a lot about the vision of the people that wrote it and conceived it, from director to soundtrack to costumes. In other words, maybe Hackers showed up at the right time, sort of like the Sex Pistols relative to punk music, to help define what that look was going to be. If you get in early enough, you help define something.
Birch, Stereo MC's: Although some electronic music has been absorbed into the corporate mainstream, the vast majority of good electronic music is still being made outside of the corporate mainstream. Most of the musicians and artists, even quite well known ones, still release on underground labels. People that are making electronic music still exist on the boundaries. They're still outsiders, even if a lot of people want to hear them. Most people that are involved in dance music, the whole vibe of it is very much one of consciousness. We're still outsiders.
Mason: Every generation has their tribe. And for the ‘90s, because the technology was really starting to kick off, there were some people ahead of the curve—and those are usually the leaders, whether it's music or fashion. All young people are about freedom and rebellion, and the added thing is the hackers were also about freedom of information, and that might've been a new element to a very common generational thing. We want to be free. We want to rebel against the powers that be, and you actually can't do that without information. I look at today and I'm so proud of these young people protesting. It just reminds me that there's always something to rage against.