When the bloody conflict known as the Troubles shuts down Belfast, music lover Terri Hooley (Richard Dorner) opens a record shop and calls it Good Vibrations. Soon he discovers a compelling voice of resistance in Belfast's underground punk scenes and begins drumming the young musicians into action. Terri becomes the unlikely leader of a motley crew of youths and punks who join him in his mission to create a new society, an alternative Ulster, to bring his city back to life.
Good Vibrations opens with a blast of black comedy which features the ghost of Hank Williams in a cameo and climaxes an hour-and-a-half later with a wail of a punk sing-a-long, a plea for better times and a celebration of community. Between these two dazzling high points it aims to tell the story of a bloke who was dubbed 'the Godfather’ of Irish punk.
What’s good about the film is what was good about punk
That would be Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer), and there’s something inherently charming (and punky) about a film that celebrates a relatively obscure career that in cold print looks like nothing but blunders. Hooley fostered a roster of bands and none of them had a hit. Arguably, the most important was Derry’s The Undertones who got to #31 with their 1978 single Teenage Kicks, a slab of punky pop perfection. But Hooley had something more important to contribute to music than the bottom line.
In the mid-'70s, Northern Ireland was a battlefield where sectarian violence had helped turn the place into a cultural wasteland. One of the virtues of the film is that the script by Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry doesn’t romanticise the war-like atmosphere that we’re told hung in the air like stale lager in Belfast at the time. Grudges, tough-talk, loyalty and allegiances are angry shots here. It’s dangerous not to take sides. Truce-makers then are treated, not surprisingly, with suspicion. Hooley was a music mad pub DJ, a bit of an overgrown lad who saw no righteousness in the Troubles, only blood. In this world that kind of thinking made him traitor and outsider, loose cannon and nuisance. The movie imagines Hooley as a dreamer with a social conscience and the story of the film is about his peace plan.
Hooley, who seems all heart, has no head for business, but he starts one anyway. He picks a little back street in the city as a shopfront for his record shop. The neighbourhood – all armoured car patrols and brick and gridiron fortifications – is a ghost town. Hooley calls his little venture Good Vibrations, which is instructive because that’s exactly what he wants to create. At first, his business is a bust. But then he hears punk. For Hooley, it’s the sound of Belfast: a teen identity defined by an attitude and a lifestyle free of the clanging propaganda of grown ups, a joyous call to arms in a fight to break from the gloom of war. Broke kids with big dreams start to haunt Good Vibrations, which looks here a grotty dive, but it becomes a palace of dreams. Hooley starts to manage bands, launches a record label and begins producing music. He develops ambitions and draws mates and hangers-on into showbiz schemes of big time success that never ever look bound to break even. That’s because Terri is great at making people feel good until he dicks 'em round with broken promises, because his energy is going to all points of the compass at once. For a while his girlfriend and ultimately wife, Ruth (Jodie Whittaker), remains a dedicated accomplice and ally. But even the good-natured and tough Ruth gets sick of Terri’s reliable unreliability.
This romantic subplot and its heartbreak is the closest the film gets to conventional melodrama. Instead it’s a movie of episodes, a punk pageant of familiar rock and roll frolics with the Troubles turning up in these lives like an unwelcome guest, and as a reminder of why they’re doing what they’re doing in the first place.
There’s a lovely moment when cops try to bust-up a pub show. The punks on stage and the crowd unite to send the police on their way through sheer force of will (and the odd rude gesture). Here punk unites and politics divides.
Good Vibrations has been criticised for its complacent commitment to the rock-bio clichés. But as far that is true, and I have to admit the stock situations are present and accounted for, I’m not sure it matters. What’s good about the film is what was good about punk. I’m talking about mood, its very energy, the way it flows, its plentiful jokes and cheekiness, its’ ability to catch you off-guard with a burst of sentiment or a hard-thought.
Still, the undisputed highlight of the film is Dormer’s Hooley (the rest of the cast are fine too). Sporting one of the 20th century’s worst haircuts, he’s got a father-Christmas face rimmed by a lush beard and a twinkly voice so full of hope it’s as infectious as a high-rotation hit record. Dormer is inspired throughout; the look his face conjures the moment he discovers the pogo is like watching a man born-again.
The film was co-directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn and they keep the thing moving and capture the period in its ugly beauty (laced throughout is news footage of Troubles.) But they’re not social realists. They share a dark sense of humour and a taste for visual invention. Dormer lost an eye when he was a boy. This personal tragedy is turned into a sort of live action fairytale, a tremendous vignette of raw humour where the spirit of Hank Williams turns up to serenade Terri with his Christian testimonial 'I Saw The Light’, while the kid lies in agony. Terri doesn’t see God, but he gets the idea. D’sa and Leyburn encore Hank’s happy spectre for the movie’s wonderful climax: a punk concert Hooley and his comrades staged in Ulster. As the rapturous crowd of kids, all kinds and creeds, pogo happily, Hank gives Terri a well-deserved 'good on ya son’ wink, and just for a moment ancient feuds seem irrelevant, swept away by a giant wave of music.