‘New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers … but Belfast has the reason!’ shouts a triumphant Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) to a crowd of punks near the end of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa second film Good Vibrations. Hooley – a record shop owner and label boss who played a big part in Belfast’s punk rock scene in the 1970s – looks to his left and spies the ghost of Hank Williams looking on approvingly, as if to tell the man that his work here is done. And it is … kinda.
This funny, warm-hearted and spirited biopic is a summary of Hooley’s life the 1970s, when he opened the record shop Good Vibrations on Great Victoria Street in Belfast (nicknamed ‘Bomb Alley’ because of the amount of explosive devices that went off on the road during the height of The Troubles). An idealistic, radical free spirit who inherited his father’s hardline attitude to politics to a certain degree, Hooley was dismayed by the break-up of his group of friends and the apparent death of Belfast’s nightlife when the conflict between Irish Republicans, Ulster Loyalists and the State security forces escalated, and decided to open the shop after encouragement from his wife Ruth (played here by Jodie Whittaker).
Politically-neutral, Hooley discovered the burgeoning local punk rock scene through his record store (one terrific scene here, in which Terri attends a gig by local band Rudi, tells you all you need to know about the sheer abundant joy music can bring to the already-converted); he started his own Belfast-based indie record label, also called Good Vibrations, and despite difficulties attracting the interest of the London-centric music industry initially, he put out the debut Teenage Kicks EP by Derry band The Undertones, which became a hit after being championed by influential Radio 1 DJ John Peel. Peel was so enamoured with the song he played it twice in a row on his Radio 1 show in the late 1970s, another joyous moment captured in this film, and his interest led in turn to the band signing with Sire Records. It remained Peel’s favourite song of all time until his death in 2004.
Hooley actually sold the rights to Teenage Kicks to Sire for a nominal amount, turning down offers from other labels in the region of £25,000 (a huge sum today, never mind 1978) because he felt like he shouldn’t profit from a song he hadn’t actually written himself. It’s a refreshing attitude given the number of cutthroat sharks that supposedly operate within the music industry, and this honesty and integrity presumably explains why Hooley has both succeeded and failed repeatedly during his years in business in Belfast; the film’s closing titles reveal, amusingly, that Hooley’s shop closed in 1982, reopened in 1984, closed in 1991, reopened in 1992, closed in 2004, reopened in 2005 …
It also says much about the man himself. Dormer’s performance as the good-hearted, soulful man at the centre of this film is excellent, and his portrayal of Hooley manages to keep you rooting for him even when his marriage goes south following the birth of his first child (which he misses in a montage that made me roll my eyes and involuntarily sigh ‘Oh Terry….’ out loud). Dormer captures Hooley’s friendliness, sense of humour and desire to help others out without personal reward very well indeed; the performance itself radiates good vibrations throughout.
Dormer’s turn brings to mind Steve Coogan’s role as Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which covered the birth of Factory Records in Manchester. Wilson launched Factory around the same time that Hooley started his label, and there are several parallels shared by the two films (and indeed the two indie impresarios they focus on – although Hooley seems like a rank amateur in bad business dealings and self-promotion when compared to Wilson, who turned both into art forms).
Unfortunately in focusing on Hooley the other characters suffer a little; Whittaker is good as the love of Terri’s life and she has a fairly big part, but it would have been good to know more about the other characters that appear. Michael Colgan, for example, plays Hooley’s friend and sometime business partner Dave Hyndman, but we learn little about him and he appears to be present simply to act as the voice of skepticism while Terri’s flights of fancy take off. It’s also a shame that The Undertones are built up in the film – particularly the part of lead singer Feargal Sharkey (Kerr Logan) – but as soon as the band signs with Sire they disappear, only to briefly appear in a Top Of The Pops clip some time later. Perhaps that’s exactly how it happened. In fairness this is a biopic, so the focus on just one man is hardly surprising.
Hooley was motivated to try and do something positive for the city of Belfast while it went to hell in a handcart. As such, this is a feel-good movie, but it doesn’t ignore The Troubles at all. There are no deaths here and minimal violence, but the sectarianism is shown via archive footage and feels like a part of everyday life in the city. In one excellent sequence near the beginning the history of the conflict up to 1970 is squeezed into a rapid-fire thirty seconds, which gives enough background for the purposes of the plot; Hooley remains non-sectarian throughout, but even that neutral stance is enough to get him into trouble.
This film gets a hell of a lot right. It captures the buzz and DIY ethic of punk rock superbly and contains some imaginative, otherworldly imagery: it begins with a beautiful sequence showing the young Terri running round his front garden while Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light plays on the soundtrack and there’s even an odd animated segment as Terri snorts a line of coke and travels across London to meet with various record company execs (which works perfectly, as it happens). Visually arresting at times, the invention on display lifts it above a great many music-related biopics as a result. It’s a shame that the supporting characters aren’t quite as memorable as those in 24 Hour Party People or even the vaguely-similar High Fidelity, but the restrained performances allow Dormer and Whittaker to shine in the spotlight. This was the critic Mark Kermode’s favourite film of 2013 but unfortunately it had a limited cinema release; hopefully it will find a larger audience on DVD, as it is a film with genuine heart and soul and a thoroughly uplifting experience. Good vibrations indeed.
Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Written by: Colin Carberry, Glenn Patterson
Starring: Richard Dormer, Jodie Whittaker
Running Time: 102 minutes