When I first joined Spotify back in 2014, my playlist organisation was non-existent. Feeling spoiled by the prospect of any ad-free music I could think of, I would dip in and out of the catalogues of just about every artist I had ever listened to, particularly the soundtracks of my favourite films that I had never owned on CD. When I scroll back to the very beginning of my music library, there’s a few artist profiles that Spotify saved for my regular listens: Basement Jaxx, Blondie and Melanie C, interspersed among the likes of Two Door Cinema Club, Enya and Oasis. I think that’s what they call range.
The first three artists made a permanent stamp on my listening records for the same reason – they all have songs that feature on the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack. When I first watched Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film about football-mad teenager Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra and the cultural challenges she faces in pursuing her dreams, I was immediately hooked on the soundtrack and listened to it on YouTube for weeks after. Spanning genres from British pop and house to bhangra and electronic dance, Bend It Like Beckham’s soundtrack captured the colourful musical landscape of early noughties Britain, while also questioning the notion that these cultures were at odds with one another.
Deceptively understated yet unshakably memorable, several songs from the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack have become synonymous with the film. Whether it’s the clamour of Backyard Dog’s ‘Baddest Roughest‘ when Jess skills up the boys in the park, or the team training montage to Basement Jaxx’s ‘Do Your Thing’ when she first tries out for the Hounslow Harriers, the lively soundtrack perfectly matches the explosive energy of its sporting moments. In one scene when Jess heads to training, Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ plays with soulful optimism and uncannily relevant lyrics: “Your folks might understand you / By and by / Just move on up / Towards your destination.” But the defining Bend It Like Beckham musical moment is when Basement Jaxx’s ‘Red Alert’ plays as Jess sneaks out the house to play a football match – the urgent, propulsive momentum capturing her defiant spirit to play football against her parents’ wishes. The simmering energy in the opening “yo yo yo” vocals is infectious, and to this day my mind instantly connects this hook to that scene.
The soundtrack is also utilised to highlight the moments when Jess disobeys her parents and rejects cultural expectations. In one scene, she complains that anything she wants is “not Indian enough”, explaining that she’s always played by the rules and never bunked off school like her sister to go to a daytimer event – secret daytime raves attended by Desi youth in the 80s and 90s. But she gets a taste of party culture when she travels to Germany for a football tournament, exploring the tourist attractions to the glowy wonder of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, and dancing in a club to Melanie C’s ‘I Turn To You’. The newly solo Sporty Spice also rewrote the lyrics to her single ‘Independence Day’ to fit better with the film. “I have my dream to live, following that star / It doesn’t matter how long it takes, it doesn’t matter how far,” she sings, aptly paired with the scene when Jess buys her first pair of football boots. A keen supporter of girl band solo ventures, Chadha also featured Victoria Beckham’s ‘I Wish’ and ‘Dream the Dream’ by All Saints’ Shazney Lewis, who actually features in the film as one of Jess’ teammates.
Where pop music is used to represent Jess choosing football, the internal cultural conflict is captured in the soundtrack’s bhangra and Bollywood music. Tracks like Punjabi pop song ‘Jind Mahi’ by Malkit Singh and Bally Sagoo’s ‘Noorie’ are heavily emotive, both of which play when Jess is forced to choose family over football. YouTube comments for these tracks are filled with listeners who can’t understand the lyrics, but were moved when they heard the songs in Bend It Like Beckham, even feeling a certain nostalgia towards their evocative melodies.
Part of the reason the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack has continued to resonate with me is because Jess’ story, and the accompanying music, offers a story of hope in my hometown of Hounslow – Chadha also grew up nearby in Southall, where some of the film is set. In fact, it was so close to home that my dad recalls a location scout for the film taking pictures of our house and green space opposite around 20 years ago. They chose a location five minutes down the road instead. But while the west London borough is often seen as notoriously bleak, being voted the second most miserable place to live in the UK in 2015, Bend It Like Beckham celebrates what makes Hounslow unique. Although there isn’t much appeal to living under a flight path, this proximity to Heathrow airport – where my own Grandad landed from India in 1957 – is partly why Hounslow has become one of most multicultural places in London. It’s also the gateway to Jess’ stateside football dreams when she gets a scholarship for a California University.
As Jess finally heads to America, ‘Inner Smile’ by Texas plays, spotting Posh and Becks at the airport in a serendipitous moment of fate. It’s a blissful, quintessentially noughties chill track to round up a feel-good watch, as Jess finds inner peace in being able to follow her football dreams with the support of her family. For me, the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack is a reminder that stories of hope can come from anywhere, and that, 20 years later, music can still make you feel nostalgic about even the most unglamorous of places.