It can often be the case that history on screen can feel somewhat remote and detached from modern life, sometimes the frame of reference can be so different that it is difficult to take in the historical events playing out on screen. This is not always the case; the events depicted in Schindler’s List are as harrowing today as they no doubt were at the time. For me, the events and happenings in Belfast during the Troubles of the 1970’s and 80’s can feel somewhat remote when played out on screen given the long period of peace the people of Northern Ireland have enjoyed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Today’s flick of the day however, Good Vibrations, manages to bring to life the difficult and often harrowing events of those times while also immersing us in the Belfast punk music scene through this fine tale of the life and times of Terri Hooley.
At the opening of the film we are introduced to a young Terri playing in his front garden where all is right with the world until after an exchange of words with some local children he gets a toy arrow to the face and requires a glass eye. At this point, I was slightly worried that the film might turn out to be a tad too grim to be enjoyable but it isn't the case. We fast forward in a bravura sequence of carefully edited news footage to Belfast in the 1970’s. Terri is a music fan and he saw all the greats come to Belfast in the 1960’s : Dylan, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on until of course they stopped coming because nobody went out at night anymore.
We find Terri, played by the excellent Richard Dormer, scratching out a living in Dylan Moran’s dive bar where he acts a DJ to an empty room. There he meets Ruth played by an equally excellent Jodie Whittaker; he explains that once upon a time he had lots of friends, both Protestant and Catholic and that once the troubles started, they fell into opposing groups with Terri alone in the middle. We see how his former friends now despise him for not siding with either side. After marrying Ruth, they try and form a life together despite the maelstrom which is erupting around them. However after Terri is the subject of an attempted kidnapping at gunpoint while walking home one night, he decides that he had to do something to foster peace and hits on the idea of a record shop. With the help of Ruth’s idealistic group of friends and a mortgage on his house, Terri sets up Good Vibrations. The story would have ended there but for the fact that Terri becomes drawn into, almost by accident, the emerging punk scene in Belfast. Despite being older than the young people that are the focus of this movement, Terri finds himself drawn to the energy of the music and a scene which is truly cross-cultural and without the infection of sectarianism. He sets out to try and bring as much press and airplay to the burgeoning scene and its various bands including most famously The Undertones and their anthem “Teenage Kicks”.
The real strength of this film is how it perfectly captures the raw energy and emotion of the punk movement and how influential it would prove despite its short initial lifespan. Yet the film does not ignore the fact that punk was not the only game in town. In a poignant scene, Terri notes how talented musicians from the oft-maligned show band circuit kept the Belfast music scene alive.
The film displays a light touch with a period of Northern Ireland’s history which was grim to say the least and is to be commended for this. The casting of some of the young bands feels spot on, in particular Fergal Sharky of The Undertones. Ultimately the rise and fall of punk in Belfast did not bring about a sea change in relations between the two factions and it can’t be ignored that the Troubles thundered on for another 15 years with perhaps the darkest days in the 1980’s. Yet this film feels like a celebration of a time and place when change felt possible and one can’t help but be caught up in Terri Hooley’s story. As the man himself puts in the end: “When it comes to punk, New York may have the haircuts, London may have the trousers but Belfast has the reason”.