Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn have defied the conventional sobriety of a film about ‘the Troubles’ in their Belfast-set music biopic, Good Vibrations (2012). Without shying away from the darker aspects of the city in the 1970s, their story is concerned with one man who believed music could make a difference in such distressing segregated times. That man is Terri Hooley, known affectionately as Belfast’s ‘godfather of punk’, who not only opened a record store in the city centre during the height of the hostilities, but founded the label that gave the world The Undertones and their most famous hit, Teenage Kicks.
Hooley’s (Richard Dormer) love of music sees him continuing his weekly DJ set in the now empty shell of a bar that, a few years earlier, would have been jam packed with Protestant and Catholic alike. Convinced his passion is a positive and unifying force, he decides to re-mortgage the house in order to open the eponymous record store in one of Belfast’s most oft-bombed areas. Soon afterwards, he discovers the city’s underground punk movement and endeavours to release their music himself.
With a complete lack of business nous, but an unbridled enthusiasm, things veer wildly for Hooley; from struggling to be a good husband to his long-suffering wife Ruth (Jodie Whittaker), to getting his protégés‘ hit played by John Peel. Ticking off the clichés of the rock bio, Good Vibrations features ecstatic epiphanies to the sound of raging guitars, a dozen band members packed into a beat-up tour bus and a liberal helping of tantrums and tears. What it also manages, though, is an excellent portrait of the ordinary people attempting to live their lives in a city ravaged by violence. Hooley himself stays clear of taking sides in the conflict, but is still threatened and abused by those looking to hurt innocent people.
In this regard, the film manages to feel more real than many other films about the Troubles that place audiences alongside more militant characters. Hooley’s story is of a man who desperately wanted to stay out of the gang culture, and in punk he found the perfect way to channel the anger of himself and other such-inclined youth. The cast (including the likes of Liam Cunningham and Dylan Moran) are all excellent, but in truth there are no other characters that are given the same kind of depth as the protagonist; it’s still very much the Terri Hooley Show.
Barros D’Sa and Leyburn’s film is hardly a rose-tinted portrait of Hooley as a man, but Dormer’s excellent performance keeps our protagonist endearing even as his lack of self-awareness infuriates. Add to the mix a naturally great soundtrack (featuring The Undertones and more) and you have a charming – if modest – British hit on your hands, with enough substance also packed in to make Good Vibrations an unexpectedly deft depiction of 70s Belfast.
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