Good Vibrations is a new film funded by the Irish Film Board, starring Richard Dormer and Jodie Whittaker. The film follows the story of Terri Hooley, the godfather of Ulster punk, who opened a record shop (the eponymous Good Vibrations) in Belfast at the height of The Troubles. He went on to ‘discover’ such groups as The Undertones and The Outcasts, and the film chronicles his life in Northern Ireland as well as the success of the bands he helped to launch.
So what is Good Vibrations? Well, it’s sort of a biopic… except that it only covers a relatively short period in Hooley’s life. It’s sort of an independent, niche film… except that it’s got some pretty well-known actors, and it’s coming to the big screen. It’s sort of a mainstream film… except its narrative arc is incomplete, and doesn’t resolve any of the tensions that it highlights. What is Good Vibrations? In a word: confusing.
That said, I enjoyed watching this film. The events of Terri Hooley’s life are very interesting, even to someone with no special interest in punk music; the acting and directing are very good, the cast is well-chosen, and the production values are great. Ultimately, it’s a very well-made film, and contains a lot of material that’s truly diverting – reasonably entertaining, and reasonably illuminating at the same time.
The film had a strange and often unpredictable relationship with the reality of The Troubles, which I expected to have a great presence in the story. Despite opening with Terri losing an eye to a hate attack, and a couple of other incidents of violence towards Terri and his friend Greg, there’s no real sense of The Troubles as a presence in the piece – one can easily forget about them as one watches the film, which doesn’t really seem right to me. I think perhaps the upbeat tone of the film jars with the sense of impending danger that The Troubles should create, and the story – and Ulster punk, for that matter – doesn’t really make sense without it.
The narrative structure of the piece is also a bit strange; initially, the film has a strong narrative drive, and seems to progress in a conventional and rigid structure. However, as the plot progresses, this drive loses force until the film meanders into an ending that doesn’t resolve any of the tensions raised during the story. I’m no fan of rigidly conventional plots, but the film really had no conclusion at all in the proper sense, and so it was hard to take anything away from the experience.
Richard Dormer is excellent in the role and, along with fellow star Jodie Whittaker, brought a lot of pathos to the Hooleys – even if this sympathy was somewhat thwarted by the ending, which gives no further information about Terri’s separation from his wife and daughter. In general, the acting in this film was very well-managed, with many characters ranging convincingly from pathos to comedy.
The punk music itself is well represented throughout the film, and archive footage from Top of the Pops, as well as other sources, blends very well with the representation of the bands that the film provides. Raw news footage of The Troubles in Belfast is also mixed in, and combined with some nice retro graphics choices, all of this helps to give a sense of historical realism that is playful and effective.
To sum up
While I was watching Good Vibrations, I very much enjoyed it; looking back on it, however, I feel unsatisfied by the film, and I struggle to see how it fits in with other cinema. I struggle to see what audience it will be able to connect with, and how it could be a commercial or artistic success. But whatever my doubts in hindsight, the fact that I enjoyed this film so much in the moment has to count for something – and I would certainly recommend it as a film that is sensitive, informative and very entertaining.
Good Vibrations is out in cinemas on 29 March 2013.