There have been some remarkable films made about life (and death) in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’, the violent sectarian conflict that divided the British province during the 1970s and 1980s: Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, and Steve McQueen’s Hunger are just a few.
The latest entry also features bombed-out streets, murderous paramilitaries, and life during (undeclared) wartime, but it also comes with a rousing backbeat and defiant optimism. The independent production Good Vibrations, directed by the married team of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, celebrates the life and exploits of Terri Hooley, a music aficionado who deep in Belfast’s winter of despair in 1977 took a stand and opened the titular record store that soon gave birth to a record label and the city’s nascent punk rock scene.
Hooley, who had already avoided a kidnapping and received numerous death threats, took a stand borne out of a refusal to accept the destructive status quo. By opting for the guitar over the gun, he rallied the city’s adolescent outsiders to his name and gave the world songs such as the seminal ‘Teenage Kicks’, an anthem from Derry teenagers The Undertones that remains a signature tune for the era.
“There’s been a lot of films made about Northern Ireland during The Troubles and those films should be made, but what we wanted to do was celebrate another side of being here at that time,” explains the Belfast born and bred Leyburn. “At that time people got by with humour and teenagers just wanted to be teenagers.”
The son of a socialist who initially ignored the strife between Catholics and Protestants in favour of being a reggae DJ, Terri Hooley went from being an outcast to his current standing as a cultural icon of a rejuvenated Belfast. The now 65-year-old has trees and plaques placed in his honour, all opened with public ceremonies, conducts a “sex, drugs and rock & roll” walking tour of the city, and published a successful memoir, Hooleygan, while still working in his record store.
“Terri is a local legend. If you get into any taxi in Belfast and mention Terri Hooley’s name the taxi driver will tell you some really good stories, although most of them couldn’t be included in the film because we didn’t have enough time,” Leyburn notes. “He’s well known, and Lisa and I knew of him long before the film. I’d been into the record store to buy music from him, but I was a little too young to have been at the early gigs we showed.”
Hooley genuinely is a “colourful local character”, but those are not always the easiest figures to make a biopic of, especially when the subject is alive and active. The version of someone on the screen, where fact meets the legend, is never exactly as everyone else, including the inspiration, imagined it might be.
“Terri from an early stage was involved in the film, which was based on Terri’s stories and Terri’s many tellings of his Terri stories,” notes Leyburn with a laugh. “We never wanted to make a film where we shut Terri out after we got his life rights, but at the same time as a filmmaker you have to have space to make the film, and Terri was very gracious about that even as there was this air of expectation around town. It’s a story that’s close to a lot of hearts.”
Hooley sometimes visited the set twice a day, although it should be noted that generally coincided with when the catering tent was serving breakfast and dinner. Nonetheless, it gave the Northern Ireland actor and playwright Richard Dormer a chance to polish a performance that captures Hooley’s sudden excitement, genuine compassion, and abiding faith in music. Hooley loved a great song, but couldn’t care less about making a profit, as demonstrated by the original Good Vibrations label going bankrupt in 1982.
Leyburn and D’Sa impart a sense of Hooley’s outlook in the film’s aesthetic. While so many of the sets feature muted shades of brown, nicotine stains and clouds of cigarette smoke, they also shoot Dormer from exaggerated angles at times, so that he looks like a madman or a prophet about to deliver a sermon. The world looks strange with Hooley in it, just as to him the divided world looks strange.
“The visual style was born out of Terri as a character and a storyteller. When Terri tells a story he tells it very visibly and very colourfully, but we’re used to that documentary, realist feeling for movies set during The Troubles,” says Leyburn. “We didn’t feel that was appropriate to the verve and colour Terri has.”
Good Vibrations is the second feature from the husband and wife team, who came to directing together from different backgrounds. Leyburn was a graphic designer, whose work on record sleeves segued into making music videos, while D’Sa was a writer. Both value the communal nature of filmmaking, and the collegial atmosphere of the set, after starting out in careers that placed them alone in rooms.
“Some people think we’re nuts,” admits Leyburn, who adds that they have rules about not discussing work at home after a certain point in the day. Both Good Vibrations and their 2009 debut, Cherrybomb, explore the milieus of rebellious teens, but in the new film punk rock is anything but a starting point for nihilism or rage.
“Teenagers in Belfast at that time rebelled by doing what teenagers in so many other places took for granted. The specific brand of punk rock that came out of Belfast was quite unique – ‘Teenage Kicks’ has a really innocent sentiment to it,” Leyburn observes. “It’s not about destruction and it doesn’t have violent imagery. They lived those things, so their rebellion was to say we just want to be like everyone else.”
“Our film is really about a man and a group of young people who refused to be defined by the bigotry and hatred going on around them,” he adds. “They stuck their head above the parapet and were courageous enough to say that they weren’t going to take a side. We hope that the film is a celebration of that.”
Good Vibrations is streamng now at SBS On Demand.