I tried to see this film on its release but somehow missed it. I’m very pleased to have found the DVD. The music biopic is currently very well represented in the UK film industry though many critics and some audiences seem to despise the form. Why are there so many of these films at the moment? Is it because the filmmakers want to draw on their own teenage years? Is it nostalgia for a time when working-class kids could become stars or is it a sad reflection on the current state of popular music? I dread to think of the musical biopics of current ‘stars’ of the Simon Cowell era.
Rest assured, Good Vibrations is pure joy from start to finish. I’m struggling to think of another film which has the same energy, warmth, wit and sheer sense of being alive in very difficult times – and which is also a well-made film with great performances. The ‘bio’ at the film’s centre is of Terri Hooley the music obsessive who at the height of the sectarian conflict in 1970s Belfast opened a record shop which he called ‘Good Vibrations’. A genuine Belfast hero, Hooley is played brilliantly by local actor Richard Dormer. Apparently Michael Fassbender was once in the frame but it’s hard to imagine anyone else but Dormer in the role.
Terri Hooley’s remarkable story sounds like it was written by a music/film fan (the film’s two writers, Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson have done a great job). First Terri lost an eye in a childhood accident, then discovered Hank Williams and grew up with a fascination for all kinds of pop music – all met with disapproval by his radical socialist father. Terri ignores the conflict to pursue his grail – to bring great music to the youth of Belfast. He’s supported by friends and his wife Ruth well played in a difficult role by Huddersfield’s Jodie Whittaker nailing the Belfast accent (at least for those of us outside Ulster). Terri’s most famous achievement was to record and release a record by the Undertones (from Derry) and to persuade John Peel play ‘Teenage Kicks’ on his radio show. Why didn’t he become a music industry success story? Because at heart he is a fan and a philanthropist – and a hopeless businessman. And remember, he was operating in a city with troops on the street and threats from Unionist and Republican hit squads. How did he keep his sanity? A clue is that he didn’t stint on the booze and drugs. I guess the nearest filmic equivalent to Terri Hooley is Tony Wilson as played by Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People. It’s worth noting that Andrew Eaton and Michael Winterbottom, producer and director of 24 Hour Party People are both listed in the credits for Good Vibrations as their company Revolution Films was involved in the production (Eaton is from Northern Ireland). However, although the two films share certain aesthetic elements, Good Vibrations is much warmer and less cynical (and less postmodernist)
Besides the music, the aesthetic interest in the film is in its look – surrealist and expressionistic. The two directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn split the role so that D’Sa focused on the actors and their performances while Leyburn was more concerned with the technical aspects of cinematography (Ivan McCullough), production design (Derek Wallace) and art direction (Gillian Devenny). There are useful interviews with the directors and the other leading figures in the production on the DVD.
The ‘local’ emphasis in the film with its accents and its craic and its depiction of Belfast under siege with life for young people only tolerable because of the music is ironically what can make this a universal film. Terri Hooley is so passionate about music and his love spans Hank Williams, rock ‘n roll, psychedelia and punk with reggae thrown in. Only the most heard-hearted could fail to find something to cheer in this lovely film.