Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s Good Vibrations is based on the real-life story of Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer). Hooley is described as “The Godfather of Belfast Punk”; the movie centres on his introduction to the punk rock scene during the Troubles in the 1970s. Hooley already has more records than he has clothes so opening a record shop, the titular “Good Vibrations”, seemed like a logical move. The jeopardy comes from using his house as collateral to open the store on the most bombed street in Belfast. When a teenager in a leather jacket arrives at the store and asks if they stock any “Rudi” or anything by “The Outcasts”, Terri is stumped and decides to go to a small gig to see those bands live. That decision will drastically change his life as Terri takes it upon himself to help these groups to make their own singles and promote them. While most biopics depict either a brilliant success story or a heart-wrenching tragedy, Good Vibrations is neither and what follows are simply the ups and downs of a man’s life in 1970s Belfast.
The film is built on the clichés of the music biopic genre: close-up of an LP in the opening sequence; voice-over narration by the main character; a punk rock soundtrack accompanying film montages; location shots (Belfast) and archival footage. However, there are just enough twists on these clichés to keep the movie fresh. The narration is intimate enough to give the impression that Hooley is telling you his story over a pint in the Harp Bar. The archive footage, which does serve to remind the viewer that this is a performance, is edited at such a quick pace that the audience is never actually allowed to surface from the movie’s narrative. Shot footage and archival film are intercut occasionally, as for example, when news coverage of a bombing which fades to black and back again highlighting a character’s reaction. The reckless abandon of the music and the crushing reality of sectarianism are consistently linked.
In the lead role, Dormer’s portrayl of Hooley could itself carry the entire movie; his antics and expression are wonderful, for example, when he begins jumping up and down in a club upon first hearing “Big Time” by “Rudi”, or his first listen of “Teenage Kicks” by “The Undertones”. Just as Hooley is about to cut his losses with the band in the recording studio, the owner implores him to listen to the track. With headphones on and Hooley steaming up the glass in the recording studio with his heavy breathing, Hooley looks like he has never heard anything like it before. Brilliantly, the audience are not permitted to hear the song at this point themselves; it is kept as an intensely personal moment. We finally hear it when John Peel famously plays it twice in a row on his BBC radio show. As Hooley and his long-suffering wife Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) jump around their living room in sheer joy, the power of the song doesn’t seem far from a religious experience. And that is the effect that D’Sa and Leyburn are seeking. While the sectarian divide continued to take its toll on the community, the music and the extended family that came with it were what Terri had left. To hear one of these bands on national radio was Terri’s victory, won not with bombings or shootings but through music.
This is a film of highs and lows with moments of utter joy and rebellious pride counterbalanced by bombings, shootings, beatings and failures. While Good Vibrations is about the life of Terri Hooley and the punk rock scene, it is also a snapshot of a decade in Belfast’s history. Despite clichés, Good Vibrations is funny, heart-warming and crushing all at the same time and Dormer’s performance is absolutely outstanding. See this movie; then buy it on Blu-ray and cherish it like one of the most prized LPs in Hooley’s extensive collection.